Just over 20 years ago, way back in 2002, I was asked by the leadership of the 100 Black Men of Memphis to serve as principal of one of the first charter schools to open its doors here in Memphis and the state of Tennessee – the Memphis Academy of Health Sciences.
I served there for more than 10 years, from 2003-2014.
I remember being so excited about the impact charter schools could have on public education, especially in the field of urban education.
After opening the school, the experience was so breathtaking I thought I was in urban school heaven.
Charter schools have grown rapidly in Tennessee since 2003. Now, over 100 charter schools operate in the state, serving more than 38,000 students.
Charter schools now account for about 10 percent of all public-school students in Tennessee.
After 20 years, however, the jury seems to still be out on the charter school movement in Tennessee and around the country, for that matter.
Or is it?
Charter schools have been part of the American educational landscape since the early 1990s, and over the years, they have been given a variety of resources and policy tools aimed at improving public education.
The success or failure of the charter school experiment in Tennessee and around the country is a complex and debated issue.
The impact of charter schools can vary widely depending on factors such as location, specific school practices, and the criteria used to assess success.
You couldn’t ask for any more than what charter schools have been given over the years to improve educational outcomes for students.
What I enjoyed most about charter schools was the amount of autonomy operators were given to manage their schools.
This freedom allowed school leaders to create innovative educational models, curriculum choices, and administrative practices tailored to meet the needs of students, often without the bureaucratic constraints that traditional public schools face.
Charter schools have the flexibility to extend school hours, change the school calendar, and adjust teacher pay scales.
This flexibility can be a significant advantage in tailoring education to better suit the needs of urban students.
Of course, funding always was an issue. While charter schools often argue they are underfunded compared to traditional public schools, they (like regular schools) receive public funds based on enrollment.
However, we were able to able to secure private funding from philanthropists, foundations, and corporations interested in supporting educational reform.
Access to adequate facilities still is a significant challenge for many charter schools. To address this, some states and cities have provided funding or bond programs specifically for charter school facilities.
Federal grant programs, like the Charter Schools Program (CSP), helped new and existing charter schools with start-up, expansion, and renovation costs.
But charter schools are accountable for academic results as a condition of their charter, just like any other public school. They must meet the performance standards outlined in their charter agreements, which can create a strong focus on both academic and nonacademic outcomes.
There is a plethora of data in the public-education arena about what works in urban education.
Charter schools are in the best position to take advantage of that data to improve academic performance in urban schools.
According to the Tennessee Department of Education, in 2018-19, the last school year before the pandemic, 26.5 percent of Tennessee charter schools were designated “priority schools” due to low performance on state tests, compared to only 10.7 percent of traditional public schools.
With all the support and advantages granted to charter schools to help improve student achievement, especially in urban schools, the current level of results, quite frankly, is unacceptable.
So why aren’t charter schools more successful?
Assessing the charter school experiment’s success or failure often depends on one’s perspective, values, and educational priorities.
Some proponents argue that charter schools have provided valuable options and driven innovation, while critics raise concerns about equity, accountability, and potential adverse effects on traditional public schools.
Public opinion and policy decisions on charter schools continue to evolve, making it an ongoing topic of debate and study in Tennessee and across the nation.
Charter schools have grown rapidly in recent years and are now a significant part of the state’s public education landscape. Charter schools are providing families with more educational choices and are helping to raise the bar for all public schools in the state.
Over the next two months, I will do a three-part series on what works in charter schools in Tennessee and across the nation.
I will explore why some charter school organizations are more successful than others and what must change to raise the achievement levels in struggling schools.
We will hear from parents, students, and educators on what makes a successful charter school here in Tennessee.
(Follow me, TSD’s education columnist, on Twitter @curtisweathers. Email me at [email protected].)