It was a match made in heaven.

The worst Tennessee Legislature in memory advised on charter schools law by the specious superintendent of Shelby County Schools, Bobby Webb.

Fortunately, in the midst of its gun fetish exhibitionism, the Legislature found time to reverse course on a proposed amendment to Tennessee’s restrictive charter schools laws.

In keeping with the mantra of the educational bureaucrats, Mr. Webb was critical of charter schools generally and the motivations of their supporters specifically. His intemperate – not to mention uninformed – comments made their way to today’s front page of The Commercial Appeal where he dug the hole even deeper.

Red Scare

It’s hard to know exactly where to start since his remarks managed to question the integrity of charter advocates – which include all kinds of people and organizations – and the intelligence of school-age parents who overwhelmingly support charter schools.

He called charter schools a “fad” (remember when educators called pre-K the same) and said, “It’s about private entities trying to get their hands on millions and millions of public dollars. That’s all it’s about.” Not to be outdone, the county district’s board chairman David Pickler, who’s always able to spot a Communist under every bed, added for effect: “Be aware of the trend generating here.”

It would be laughable except that these are the people who are supposed to really understand public education and to be looking out for the interest of every child. However, as usual, to them, it’s all about control, authority and political advantage.

The Party Line

It’s incredible how quickly the litany can begin:

* Charter schools undermine public schools (even though charter schools are public schools)

* Charter schools “cherry pick” students (even though state law requires them to educate failing students or students from failing schools)

* Charter schools take money from public schools (even though they educate students cheaper – they’re supposed to be funded at the same level as public schools but Memphis City Schools shortchanges them)

* Our state doesn’t need more charter schools because we are doing so well on our state assessment tests (even though repeated research has shown that our TCAP and Gateway tests are a farce)

Supt. Webb vs. Secretary Duncan

And yet, Mr. Webb treats the children in our classrooms as props in his political theater where the aim is to protect teachers from more accountability, fight any innovations that aren’t invented by him and reject any solutions that come from nontraditional sources.

These days, however, people like Mr. Webb aren’t arguing with the many local people and organizations working every day to give parents options for their children’s education. More to the point, they are arguing with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who called for less restrictive charter laws.

In a column written with Tennessee Senator and former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, Secretary Duncan wrote: “We have seen the potential that charter schools can have in getting results for American students. As the debate over public charter schools moves forward across the country and in Tennessee, we must stay focused on the core issue, which is educational quality, not government.”

The question for Mr. Webb is this: if you are right about charter schools, why is Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash opening his own and why is the Democratic Secretary of Education calling for more?

Getting The Facts Right

Repeating the old apophthegm, Mr. Webb said charter schools are reducing public school resources. If he believes it, he needs to sign up for remedial math.

If there are about 3,000 charter school students in a district (as in Memphis City Schools), that means there are 3,000 fewer students in traditional schools. As we wrote 18 months ago, about $3,000 less is spent per charter school student in the city district than a traditional school student, or about $9 million a year for 3,000 students. So, actually, right now, traditional public schools here have more money, not less.

In Tennessee, charter schools are public schools. For example, the charter schools in Memphis are part of Memphis City Schools. In return for its contract, or charter, it has more autonomy than traditional schools, and because it is allowed more flexibility, it can experiment with changes that can be applied to the entire district (that is if the district would quit treating charter schools like the enemy), but along the way, it must also comply with many rules and regulations of the city schools district.

And yet, Mr. Webb suggested that charter schools are poor public policy. We are hard-pressed to understand how anything that gives parents more choices – something they clearly want, according to polling – for their children’s education is bad. It just indicates how out of touch the educational politicians are with the people who entrust them to do what is best for their children.

Proof Positive

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.

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.

Large government bureaucracies often act like organisms that see innovations as viruses they must attack. That’s why so many promising ideas are suffocated in their infancies, and it’s also why Mr. Webb was caught holding the pillow over the crib.