Charter schools just got a late Valentine from state government.

It came in the form of an encouraging 40-page report by the highly respected Comptroller of the Treasury John Morgan.

The report called for loosening state restrictions that limit charter schools and for sharing charter school innovations so regular public schools “learn from charter schools’ most promising practices.”

Passing The Grade

Written by principal legislative research assistant Erin Do with the help of researchers at University of Memphis’ Center for Research in Educational Policy, the report points to the charter schools’ autonomy to select teachers and the additional flexibility given to teachers in return for more responsibility. Meanwhile, teachers rate the culture of charter schools more highly than regular schools.

However, to be a teacher, someone must first complete a rigorous review and be observed teaching a class prior to being hired and agree to a one-year renewable contract (or work without a contract), but in return, salaries are higher as teacher “continually earn the privilege of education the state’s children.”

While charters tend to use traditional methods of instruction and may appear on first look to be similar to regular schools, they have longer school days and additional school days which allow enrichment and remediation classes for students. “The established culture in each charter school allows for a higher level of student engagement,” the report said, noting that the charter schools have internships, field trips, guest speakers, small class size, additional teacher assistants, site-based decision-making and character education.

Loosen Up

Charter schools students academically outperformed similar students in regular schools on a roughly two-to-one basis, underscoring charter schools’ success in taking underachieving students and bringing them to grade level.

Tennessee state law regarding charters is one of the most restrictive in the U.S., because students must have attended a failing school, students must have failed the TCAP or Gateway exam. It is this restrictive law that threatens the future of charter schools in the state, while other states have open enrollment or gives preference to certain students but does not limit enrollment only to them.

The report also concludes that limited funding for facilities “compromises the continued viability of charter schools.” Although state law calls for 100 percent of per pupil expenditures for charter schools, Memphis City Schools calculates this formula in a way that withholds funds from charter schools.

The report suggests that the Legislature should precisely define funding responsibilities, but also, Memphis City Schools should allow charter schools access to unused or underused facilities and land.

The Big 6

According to the report, the elements of successful charter schools include:

• They are driven by mission and positive school culture

• They teach for mastery and focus on college preparation

• They innovate across the program

• They engage families as partners

• They value professional learning

• They hold themselves accountable

Anti-charter Fever

One statistic of the report jumped off the page for us. Nine of the state’s 12 charter schools are in Memphis, where they make up 2.1 percent of all public school students. It’s a modest number, particularly in the face of the strong resistance by some in the city district to charter schools themselves.

This anti-charter fervor has stepped up in Nashville as the exciting new mayor of Nashville, Karl Dean, has called for more charter schools in response to his district being place on the high-priority list of the Tennessee Department of Education. Withering opposition comes from the teachers’ union, which takes an NRA approach to government lobbying.

To the union, there is no incrementalism; every change is a slippery slope toward greater accountability for teachers and more autonomy by principals to hire and fire them. If local government sometimes seems to be a parallel universe, public education is a galaxy far, far away. There, the emphasis seems to be as much on a jobs program as on students.

Stupid And Stupefying

While we’re on the subject of the Nashville schools being put on the high-priority list, it’s always surprising how little the mainstream media knows about public schools. The most stupefying example was when the Nashville Tennessean suggested that school officials there should visit Memphis City Schools to learn how it’s done so well in getting off the same list.

It would be comical if it weren’t so serious. As we’ve pointed out before, despite misleading media announcements by local and state school officials, the truth is that 100 city schools do not now meet state benchmarks.

It’s like the magician who diverts our attention with one hand while the real action is taking place in his other hand. While state and local school officials tell us about AYP, what we really need to be told about – and what ought to be reported – are the schools that don’t meet state benchmarks.

Final Thoughts

By the way, just for the record, although Nashville’s district is on the high-priority list, it outperforms Memphis City Schools on almost every major academic measurement, as shown in this revealing comparison.

But as you have learned about us, we have endless capacity to digress. Back to the subject of charter schools, they were created as laboratories for innovation and as an educational alternative for students. “A well-formulated system for dissemination of best practices would allow school districts and the state to learn from the successes of alternative approaches to teaching methods, school calendar, school governance and other elements,” the report said.

It also called for charter schools to be treated equitably: “Charter schools are no different from traditional public schools. Policymakers should ensure that all of the operations and activities that are ancillary to the primary educational function should be adequate and sustainable over time.”