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Charter Schools at Extremes of Performance Rankings

by Andrea Zelinski on August 29, 2012

In the state’s ranking of best and worst performing schools, charter schools were a mixed bag last year.

Two charter schools made the state’s top 5 percent list for showing big academic gains, but five showed up as schools with the worst academic records.

“It really reflects that a lot of students come to us two or three school years behind,” said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association.

“Those five schools that are on the bottom list, decisions are being made on each case whether they’ll be kept open. Right now, really hard decisions are being made about those schools, and that’s how it should be,” he said.

Education officials across the state are weighing how willing they are to allow further school choice amid push-back from Metro Nashville Public Schools, which blocked a Phoenix-based charter school operator from opening up shop. Meanwhile, there is an effort by Republicans to craft an outline for a school voucher system, which would allow students to leave their zoned public schools.

The rankings examined academic performance of the state’s 1,736 schools, including 40 charter schools, during the last school year. The state is calling the 169 schools at the front 5 percent of the pack “Reward Schools.”

“We spend a lot of time sometimes talking about things that aren’t going right,” Gov. Bill Haslam said in the gymnasium at Kenrose Elementary School in Brentwood before announcing the top schools Monday.

“But we want to make certain when things are going well and schools are doing a great job and teachers are doing a great job and students are working hard, that we do a great job to celebrate that,” he said.

Tennessee is home to 48 operating charter schools this year, following moves by Haslam and lawmakers to loosen laws allowing more of the publicly held but privately run schools to to open, although after a review process. Unlike traditional schools, charters can run by different rules, like hold longer school days or school years. But they can be closed down easily after repeated poor performance or mismanagement.

This summer, MNPS stonewalled charter school operator Great Hearts Academies amid concerns the institution would lack diversity by opening up in Nashville’s affluent west side. The district then snubbed the Tennessee Board of Education by refusing to take its recommendation to approve the school, anyway, in violation of state law.

State education officials don’t appear particularly worried about the situation.

“I’m confident that Metro Nashville’s going to wind up in compliance with the law soon,” said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who this month said the state would take “appropriate action” to force the district to approve the school.

Huffman and other education officials and lawmakers are also in the midst of crafting options for how the state could adopt a school voucher program, which would allow parents to shift tax dollars from their zoned public school to send their students to the public, charter, private or parochial school of their choice.

“I think we’re still a ways away from knowing where we’re going to go,” said Huffman. “I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion.”

The task force expects to put forth several recommendations on how to approach a school voucher program, otherwise known as giving “opportunity scholarships.” The panel plans to meet Sept. 26 and offer a report in November, although the governor has said for him to consider moving forward the proposed voucher program must make more than an “incremental difference.”

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