Senate panel approves bill to expand enrollment eligibility for state-run charter schools

The Senate Education Committee voted Wednesday to advance a bill that would expand eligibility for enrollment in state-authorized charter schools beyond their residential zones.

If approved by the entire Tennessee General Assembly, the bill would modify enrollment restrictions for many of Tennessee’s lowest-performing public schools that currently operate in Memphis and Nashville. State officials estimate the change would draw an additional 400 students to the schools.

Lawmakers passed the bill 7-0, with two abstentions, after questioning state Education Department officials at length about the bill’s intent and potential impact. The proposal was filed by Rep. Harry McCormick (R-Chattanooga) and Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville) on behalf of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration.

At the center of debate is Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD), which was created in 2010 with federal grant money and charged with turning around Tennessee’s lowest performing schools. The ASD has since taken control of 23 of the state’s 85 lowest-performing “priority” schools and has authorized nonprofit charter organizations to operate 18 of those.

Currently, the ASD and its charters must operate under the same residential zoning laws as traditional schools in local districts. The bill would open the door to allow out-of-zone students to enroll in the ASD’s charters, but only after all students who currently are eligible are enrolled. The new students must be identified as low-income or performing below proficiency level academically and could comprise no more than 25 percent of the school’s total population.

Many ASD-authorized charters operate in school buildings that are underutilized and could accommodate more students than allowed under the current enrollment restrictions.

However, ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic said school choice is the primary driver behind the bill. He said families are doing their research and coming to the charter schools asking to enroll their children – only to be turned away. “This is less about not being full; and it’s more about just giving families an option if they want to send their kid to one of our schools,” he said.

Some lawmakers asked why any out-of-zone parent would choose to send their child to a school designated as a low-performing priority school.

“The reason families want to send their kids to these schools is – after a couple years – they’re not failing any more. They’re doing better, and word’s on the street that this is a better school,” Barbic said.

He reported that schools in their third year under ASD oversight have seen a “dramatic” increase in math and science scores, although reading scores remain flat.

“What about a charter school that’s just trying to take on some new kids to raise their scores so the school looks better by taking from schools outside the geographic zone?” asked Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown).

Barbic said changes under the bill would be negligible and that the proposal is not designed to provide a “backdoor” to advance charter results. “Schools are going to get to the top quartile because they’ve set up a strong program with a great leader and hard-working teachers – the same thing that makes every great school a great school,” he said.

Sen. Reginald Tate (D-Memphis) questioned the need to change the enrollment process if the change would only impact about 400 students, as estimated by Barbic.

“All this will allow us to do,” Barbic said, “is if there are open seats after we’ve served all the kids that are zoned from the neighborhood and all the kids that are zoned to a priority school want to come, we think those parents should have a chance to come.”

Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) commended Barbic for his work on behalf of Tennessee’s most vulnerable students but said he would pass on casting a vote on the measure. “I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of input from my Upper East Tennessee district, and it’s all been negative. I haven’t had one call or comment that wants this,” he said. “My largest county – Washington County – they take all their sales tax dollars and put it toward education so they fear any movement of money around.”

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Critics of the bill – and of charter schools – say the proposal would harm traditional public schools by siphoning off both students and funding.

The bill’s fiscal note said some state and local money through Tennessee’s education funding formula “may shift” to charter schools as a result of the bill. “The extent of any such shift cannot be reasonably determined,” the note says.

Barbic’s appearance before the Senate panel was his first in three years and included interesting exchanges with lawmakers as he defended the work of the unique state-run school district.

“There’s 22 bills that have been filed right now that are either trying to kill [the ASD] or pull it apart, and this thing hasn’t even gotten out of the petri dish,” he said, noting that the first schools under ASD oversight are only in their third year of operation.

Discussing the challenging work of wresting control of schools from local districts in an effort turn them around quickly, Barbic spoke passionately.

“The Achievement School District makes the state accountability system real. So the days of … neglecting certain schools over other schools because maybe the parents aren’t going to say as much, those days are over,” he said. “Districts now know that if they don’t do what needs to be done in every school for all kids, that there’s a real consequence.

“I know it’s controversial. I know it’s hard,” he said. “… Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of controversy around the work we’re trying to do to improve these schools, and there’s not nearly enough controversy around how in the heck did these schools get in this shape in the first place?”

Contact Marta W. Aldrich at

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