Another layer

Tennessee already has one state-run school district. It’s about to get another.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students participate in math class at KIPP Academy Nashville. KIPP's next two schools will be in the new Tennessee State Board of Education school district.

Last fall, the Tennessee State Board of Education overruled school leaders in Memphis to approve a new charter school there, one year after making a similar ruling in a charter school appeal in Nashville.

Now it’s about to become one of only two state boards in the nation to double as a local school district.

The state board’s first school is set to open in Memphis this fall under the management of Green Dot Public Schools. Its next school, KIPP Nashville Primary, will open in 2018, followed by a KIPP middle school in Nashville in 2019.

Hawaii is the only state that currently has a state board of education that also serves as a school district.

“It’s fairly unique situation,” said Kris Amundsen, CEO of the National Association for State Boards of Education. “(School districts) focus on details like how will kids get lunch. That’s not typically the sort of thing state boards do.”

And few, if any, states have two state-run school districts. Local districts in Memphis and Nashville already share turf — and hotly contested funding — with Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The ASD now operates 33 schools, most of which were taken over from Shelby County Schools in Memphis.

The state board has been inching toward school-district status.

In 2014, Tennessee lawmakers voted to let the State Board of Education authorize charter schools in counties with the highest number of low-performing schools. If a local board denies an application, the charter organization can appeal to the state board. If the state board overturns the local board, the local board can opt to authorize the school after all — or leave it to the state to authorize.

With both Green Dot and KIPP, school boards in Memphis and Nashville opted for the latter.

But there’s a twist to Tennessee’s state board authorizing the schools. Under state law, the entity that authorizes a school automatically becomes its school district, in charge of funding allocations and many of the school’s day-to-day operations. That’s different from the rest of the nation, where about half of state boards can authorize charter schools.

Now, Tennessee’s state board is starting from scratch to develop local district policy, a topic to be discussed Thursday during a work session in Nashville.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sara Heyburn Morrison will double as executive director and superintendent of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

“It’s different than the ASD obviously, and it’s different than the (State) Department of Education,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, who is now superintendent as well as executive director of the state board. “We’re really trying to do our homework and reach out (to local districts) early and often and look nationally as well, so we can be prepared to set up students and schools for success.”

She’s aware of the challenges facing established districts in Nashville and in Memphis, where underenrollment, and the accompanying lack of funding, have sunk several schools. Two charter operators have announced intentions to pull out of three ASD schools this spring in Memphis, leading to at least one school closure. Green Dot’s charter school agreement, which is scheduled for a state board vote on Friday, projects an eventual enrollment of 616 students.

“(Enrollment) is something that we will keep a very close eye on from a financial stability standpoint,” Morrison said. “If you’re significantly under-enrolled, are your providing the academic program you were approved for?”

Morrison said the state board hopes to work closely with local school leaders in Nashville and Memphis, and is working on a memorandum of understanding that lays out expectations.

“We really see it as a partnership,” she said. “We’re trying to be proactive and create a seamless experience for students coming in and out of (Shelby County Schools) for a school that we may be operating.”

But there are some differences in how local and state-run districts operate. Like the ASD, the state board is allowed to charge charter operators an annual fee. For the state board, the fee is up to 4 percent of a school’s funding for the first two years, and up to 3 percent in the years following. Any money the board does not use will be returned to the school.

Another difference: The state board doesn’t know how much it will expand in the coming years, since its growth depends on local school boards rejecting charter school applications, and charter schools winning their appeals.

Not everyone is happy about the state board’s new role, especially since it will only oversee schools that local districts turned down.

“Now we have two state-run school districts,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, at a recent school board meeting in Memphis. “The problem is — where is the oversight?”

Absent local school board meetings, staff for the state board are working to draft a policy addressing parents’ grievances and concerns, said Tess Stovall, director of charter school policy and accountability.

“We want it to be very clear on how to address concerns throughout the community,” she said.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.