Tennessee Charter Commission head recommends against two proposed schools in Memphis

A man speaks from a podium while a woman sitting at a desk asks questions.
Tess Stovall, executive director of the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, says she agrees with the Memphis-Shelby County Schools board’s decision to deny the applications of two new charter schools. (Larry McCormack for Chalkbeat)

The executive director of the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission has recommended against approving two proposed charter schools in Memphis, siding with a school board that found the charter applications failed to meet state standards.

Tess Stovall’s recommendations uphold the Memphis-Shelby County School board’s unanimous decision in April and again in July to reject the applications for the proposed Binghampton Community School and Tennessee Volunteer Military Academy. Leaders of both schools had appealed the decisions to the state.

The final decision on the applications will be up to a vote of the nine-member state commission. The commission’s members were all appointed by Gov. Bill Lee, who lobbied to create the panel in an effort to open more high-quality charter schools. The board will vote at its quarterly meeting on Tuesday. 

Unless the commission members vote to reject Stovall’s recommendation, the two schools will not open in August 2023 as planned.

Last month, the commission considered appeals from a charter group affiliated with Hillsdale College in Michigan whose applications had been rejected by local school districts. But the group withdrew its application before Stovall issued her recommendations.

In the MSCS cases, Stovall said she agreed with the district that both schools’ applications failed to meet state standards in their academic, operation, and financial plans.

According to its application, Binghampton Community School on the eastern edge of Midtown would serve about 360 students in grades K-5, and provide children with early access to International Baccalaureate programming. The Tennessee Volunteer Military Academy would provide about 800 students in grades 6-12 in Cordova and East Memphis with military-based educational programming with a focus on career technical education pathways and internships.

While Stovall called Binghampton’s academic plan “strong and comprehensive” and said she believes the neighborhood would be a “great location” for a charter school, she cited several concerns about the impact of the head of school’s resignation. Nikita House, the lead founder of the school, resigned  in July due to “extenuating personal circumstances.”

The school’s academic plan appeared to depend on the “unique skills” of the school’s former leader she said. So did its facility and staffing plans, she said.

In addition, Stovall said cost assumptions for the school did not appear reasonable, and leaders lacked sufficient funding to begin operations — again, largely due to the head of school’s departure.

Binghampton Community School leaders have said they would hire a new head of school once they get approval from the state, but Stovall said she “cannot ignore the material difference between the amended application and the current status of the proposed school with the named Head of School.” 

Stovall also outlined myriad concerns about Tennessee Volunteer Military Academy, noting that the academic plan in the application did not outline its grade and class structure, an instructional model, or curriculum. In addition, Stovall said there was a lack of evidence for how the school would serve students with disabilities and English language learners. 

The application also lacked letters of support, which Stovall said “calls into question whether the school will be able to recruit and enroll its targeted student population.” The school later provided 40 written public comments before a public hearing last month, but Stovall said they did not indicate the school could meet its projected enrollment of 800.

In her recommendation for denial, Stovall also cited the school’s “unclear relationship” with Charter One, a for-profit national education management organization. 

Tennessee Volunteer Military Academy also did not include a reasonable budget in its application, Stovall said, and it was unclear whether the school could secure a building in order to open in August 2023.

Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at swest@chalkbeat.org.

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