School board vote commits Shelby County’s district and charter sectors to trying to collaborate

The Shelby County school board’s latest vote on Tuesday elicited an unusual reaction: cheers from charter school advocates.

Just a month after pushing back against a state initiative to turn over low-performing schools to charter operators, the board voted unanimously to adopt an agreement between the schools it runs and the charter sector.

The agreement — which Superintendent Dorsey Hopson first requested two years ago — commits both sectors to trying to work through some sticky issues, such as how school space gets used and how schools get funding to serve students with disabilities. It also signals that both district-run and charter schools will get numerical grades through a new rating system that the board is developing.

But in contrast to a draft that the board considered last year, it does not actually resolve those issues, instead delegating the difficult work of coming to terms to a committee that now must be convened. And the agreement includes no timeline for when that, or any subsequent conversations, has to happen.

Still, charter advocates found lots to cheer in the deal, known as a charter-district compact. As in the nation’s 16 other major school districts with charter compacts, Memphis has been roiled by conflict over the role of charter schools. Having a compact in place signals that districts have accepted charter schools as part of their educational landscape, even if some specifics remain contentious.

That’s something of a shift in Memphis, where the board recently voted — symbolically, but powerfully — to call for a moratorium on expansion by the state-run Achievement School District, which assigns struggling local schools to charter operators. Instead, members have lobbied for increased support for the district’s own turnaround initiative, which does not include charter schools.

Before the vote, dozens of charter supporters lined up to share their positive experiences and pleas for Shelby County Schools to establish a working relationship with the publicly funded but privately managed schools.

Juanita Patton, a parent of two charter school students, encouraged the board to pass the compact and put an end to past conflicts between the school district and charter operators.

“It has often felt like we have been working against one another and not with one another,” said Patton. “We need to build positive and beneficial relationships between public and charter schools.”

Luther Mercer, Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center, said before the meeting that a charter compact would signal the start of a new, more collaborative era in Memphis.

“It speaks to the transformation that’s taking place here on the ground where SCS and charters in this community are helping to lead the way,” he said.

Having a compact in place hardly guarantees an end to tensions. Even with a compact in place, Nashville school board members regularly debate the costs and benefits of charter schools, and the board frequently is split about whether or how quickly to expand the city’s charter sector. Similarly, a compact signed in 2010 in New York City did not prevent conflict around charter schools from taking center stage when a new mayor who was less favorable to them took over.

For now, the district and charter sector must identify members for the ongoing collaboration committee. And Stephanie Love, who has been a vocal critic of charter schools run by the state’s turnaround district, emphasized that the compact is a framework waiting to undergo further revisions.

She also said there are good reasons for work on charter-district collaboration to proceed slowly. “It may have taken a long time,” Love said about the compact, “but we wanted to make sure we were being transparent with everybody.”