Some days, it seems like “Every Child, Every Day, College Bound” isn’t the most appropriate operating motto for Memphis City Schools.
Instead, Pogo’s immortal words might seem more apt: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
That seemed especially true last Monday when members of the Board of Commissioners were euphoric about ushering in a new era with a new superintendent, they still managed to engage in another example of old thinking.
In a vote that was unanimous in its political extortion, the Board of Commissioners jacked up the lease on the KIPP DIAMOND Academy from $50,000 a year to just under $300,000 a year. The circular logic, pandering rhetoric and political opportunism as symbolized by the educational malpractice of Dr. Jeff Warren at that meeting were nothing short of stupefying.
They Are You
After all, it’s just astonishing to us that a school that is in fact part of Memphis City Schools should have to pay rent at all.
According to the customer service office of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, that district does not charge rent to its charters, requiring them to pay direct operating expenses. Meanwhile, new Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has called for more charter schools in his city, and former superintendent Pedro Garcia has been strongly criticized for not doing more to support them.
KIPP came to Memphis in 2003 under a contract with the Memphis City School System. Since opening its doors at the Cypress Middle School building north of Rhodes college, KIPP has received a great deal of attention, being heralded for its longer school days, Saturday and Summer schools, and its stated mission of sending kids (almost all low-income) to competitive high schools and four-year colleges.
And by most accounts, the school is delivering on its promise to kids and their families.
According to results of the Stanford 10, a nationally normed achievement test taken by KIPP DIAMOND Academy students annually, fifth graders entering KIPP in the fall of 2007 were outperforming only 18 percent of students nationally in reading. By the end of the school year, however, KIPP DIAMOND’s fifth graders were outperforming 42 percent of the national norm group in reading.
In mathematics, the scores climbed from the 21st to 49th percentile; in language arts, the scores rose from the 17th to 53rd percentile; in science, the scores jumped from the 17th to 44th percentile; and in social studies, the scores rose from the 19th to 51st percentile. Nationally, more than 80 percent of the students from KIPP schools attend college while fewer than one in five low-income students typically do.
But proving that often in the city district, no good deed goes unpunished, KIPP Academy – like other charters in Memphis City Schools – is treated as an alien virus that must be attacked and destroyed. On their best days, city school officials give charter schools lip service, and on the worst, they treat them like pariahs.
KIPP became a charter school this year and immediately ran into problems with the district. The school, saddled by a financially straining collective bargaining agreement and too much bureaucratic red-tape, decided to convert to a public charter school last December (joining all the other KIPP schools in the country, which are charters).
Public charter schools have been frequent subjects for much debate over the past 15 years, and frequent objects of broad knee-jerk screeds by academicians who see everything that doesn’t originate within the hallowed halls of public education as the enemy.
Here, though, it all seems to ignore the fact that Memphis charters are in fact part of Memphis City Schools. They are free, publicly-funded schools that are granted more autonomy in exchange for agreements to seek higher academic gains. This autonomy allows charters to hire and fire principals and teachers and implement their own models for student achievement.
So, now, after a productive, long-term partnership with the Memphis school system, KIPP becomes a charter school and finds the unwelcome mat put out for it at the Avery mother ship. In the school board meeting a week ago, Memphis City Schools staffers admitted that the actual cost of KIPP’s facility is $50,000, and yet, the Board – using the specious market value logic of staff – set rent at $280,000. We’ll believe that it’s real market value when the district can demonstrate the demand which is essential to setting that rental amount.
Most ironically of all, Memphis City Schools has punished a school from which it directly benefits. Under No Child Left Behind laws, charter test scores are counted with city schools for accountability, and in this way, schools like KIPP help prop up the ailing public school system’s academic assessments.
Fair is fair. If the school board wants to treat charters as alien, they should also forego the use of their test results for their own benefit when it improves the academic achievement for the city district under No Child Left Behind’s AYP (Average Yearly Progress) ratings.
While many cities are offering incentives like $1 a year facilities to recruit KIPP as part of their urban education experiments, Memphis seems once again to shun anything that’s not a creation of the district itself.
Sometimes, it seems that district officials — and the teachers union in particular — fear that the autonomy given to charters to hire their own teachers and principals and the accountability built into the schools could infect the established educational order of things even though only 2,700 of the district’s 115,000 students attend charter schools.
Their results are even more impressive considering that the charter schools are being shortchanged. State law says students in charter schools will get the same amount of public money spent on them as other students; however, calculations by Memphis City Schools result in payments that are about 25 percent less.
What About The Children
None of us are suggesting that charter schools are the magic answer to all that ails Memphis City Schools, but we are suggesting that our district should encourage experiments on a variety of fronts to find out what works best and what can be transplanted to the district at large.
Sadly, in the debate about jacking up the rent of KIPP Academy, it was all about old school politics. No one talked about the few hundred students whose parents chose the school as their children’s best avenue to the future. We’re unaware of one board or staff member who bothered to ask what the impact the unconscionable hike in rent may have on the education of the kids there – fewer teachers, fewer field trips, or fewer hours.
And that was the most telling lesson of all.