Education leaders in Memphis have worked for several years to forge a delicate coalition for addressing thorny challenges that come with having the state’s fastest-growing charter sector.

So some were surprised when the State Department of Education didn’t consult them while working to overhaul Tennessee’s 2002 charter school law with a bill now winding through the legislature. Only after the bill was introduced this winter did the state seek input from charter operators, local districts and advocacy groups.

That’s protocol for the State Department, which generally writes bills based on questions and experiences collected over time from districts and schools. “It’s just the way that the administration drafts bills. … They never share bill language until it’s introduced,” spokeswoman Chandler Hopper said last week.

But the process frustrated some Memphis leaders who had no knowledge that sweeping changes were in the works.

“It seemed like someone should have reached out to Shelby County Schools,” said school board member Stephanie Love.

Love and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson first heard about the proposed overhaul in February while visiting the State Capitol to lobby against a school voucher bill in the legislature. Now that she’s reviewed the measure, Love believes the proposal is aligned with the direction of charter policies in the state’s largest district. “There may be some things I don’t like, but I believe it’s workable,” she said.

Members of the 26-member Memphis charter coalition say they’re also fairly pleased with the proposal, and they agree it’s long overdue. It’s also obvious from suggested revisions that state leaders were paying attention to conversations already happening in Shelby County.

Among the bill’s provisions are an annual fee paid by charter operators to local districts to help pay for the sector’s oversight; adopting national standards for reviewing applications; and creating a detailed evaluation and revocation process — all issues that Memphis district and charter leaders have been sorting out with local solutions since they began working together last year.

Luther Mercer, who co-chairs the committee, says it’s time for the state’s law to be fine-tuned as is charter sector grows up and deals with difficult issues such as accountability, funding and facilities.

Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center, co-chairs Shelby County Schools’ charter advisory committee.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede

“The bill is meant to close loopholes and bring more of a framework for charters and districts to work under,” said Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

Tennessee’s charter school law has had few changes since its passage in 2002, but the state’s charter sector has mushroomed to 107 schools, including 71 in Memphis. Nashville has the second-largest pool with 30 schools.

Titled the Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act, the bill would give local districts the authorizer fee they have clamored for and would require them to adopt national standards in their processes. In recent months, Memphis operators have shown a willingness to pay that fee, especially as the district’s charter office committed to standards by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Districts also would have to come up with a detailed process for revoking underperforming charter schools and a framework for outlining academic requirements for charter schools. In Memphis, fuzziness over the district’s standards resulted last year in several district-charter battles that were appealed to the State Board of Education. Ultimately, Shelby County Schools won those appeals, but not before members of the State Board chastised the district for its lack of policy clarity. The Memphis coalition has since agreed on a detailed revocation process.

Under the bill, the state must have a similar evaluation system to track achievement gaps between historically underserved student groups, financial management, and student readiness for life after high school.

It also would establish a fund to help charter operators lease or buy and improve deteriorating buildings, which is one of their biggest expenses.

One provision would require local districts to hand over student data to approved charters within 30 days of a request and prohibits those schools from sharing that information with third parties without consent. The provision would address complaints by Memphis charter operators in the state-run Achievement School District, who charged last year that the local district withheld student data that would help them to register students zoned for their schools. It also would give a nod to Shelby County Schools, which accused the state-run district of giving that information over to Memphis Lift, an advocacy group that contacted parents about school performance data.

Brad Leon, whose office oversees charters in Shelby County Schools, declined to comment about the charter school bill. However, others on the committee say the synergy between the proposal and their work in Memphis is encouraging.

“I think it should enhance the work,” said Brittany Monda, executive director Memphis College Prep.

Below is a statement from the Tennessee Department of Education about how it went about getting input from across the state to draft and revise the bill:

“One of our duties at the department is to listen to the issues that are important to the Tennessee education community, and throughout this year we heard from districts, operators, advocates, etc., about the issues that matter most to them, including those involving charter schools in Tennessee.

Based on questions and experiences we have heard from districts and schools over the past few years, and based on vagueness in some provisions of the current charter law, the department drafted a comprehensive charter school bill. After the High-Quality Charter Schools Act was introduced, we sought feedback from a wide group of stakeholders and drafted a new amendment based on that feedback.

To gather feedback, the commissioner held a call that all charter operators and all charter authorizers were invited to join. Additionally, advocacy groups like TOSS, TSBA, Tennessee Charter School Center, TennesseeCAN, and Tennesseans for Student Success provided feedback that we took into consideration. We feel the legislation in its current form reflects the input of all stakeholders and will help strengthen the charter sector in Tennessee.”