People who are deeply concerned about our kids’ education should be outraged by the way politics continues to jeopardize their future. As the commotion of the merger between the Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools has played out in the press and public discourse over the past year, another battle — this one between new public charter school applicants and the Memphis/Shelby County Unified School System — has been dragging on. And, as with most political battles, students and their families end up with the short end of the stick.
This past November, the Unified Board denied 17 public charter school applicants. (Let me point out that not all of the applicants were deserving of a school – for a host of reasons. Yet, a number of them were). But, the Unified Board did not reject the applicants based on the quality of schools they would provide to Memphis students. Instead, they invoked a fuzzy provision in the law that allows districts to reject individual charter applications for fiscal harm and denied every single application. This was in spite of the fact that a majority of those applications earned high marks under the district’s own scoring standards.
In other words, while the Unified School Board acknowledged that many of the proposed public charter schools would be good for students now, it was unwilling to transfer what amounted to about 1%-2% of its budget to start promising new schools — leaving students and families with little option but to remain in the same schools that have failed them over and over again.
What ensued after that decision was – to put it politely – a clumsy process. After nearly six months of delays by the Memphis/Shelby County School Board and their submission of erroneous and misleading information, the State Treasurer ruled in favor of the charter applicants. Applicants were then required to appeal the initial denial decision by the Unified School Board to the State Board of Education, which will have a public hearing on May 3rd before rendering a final verdict on whether these schools can open.
Although a number of these applications are likely to be approved by the State Board of Education — given the high scores they received from the Unified Board, it may be too late for many of them to overcome the logistical challenges of opening a new school in such a short time frame. Schools have to find a facility, hire an entire teacher corps and staff, secure instructional supplies and technology, etc. all in about three months.
Why does this continue to happen to students and their families? I would argue because the public education system is centered on creating and maintaining opportunities for adults rather than for children and their families. Plagued by divisive politics and misguided policies, the public education sector has been more about who gets to control the system – and more importantly — the money and jobs associated with it, than about creating great schools for kids.
I am the first to admit that public charter schools are not a panacea for correcting the ills of our education system, but they are a potent tool that has been used effectively in many cities around the nation. What’s more, public charter schools have been important reform partners for a number of districts around the country, collaborating in innovative ways to share instructional and operational best practices to demonstrate how new school models can help boost student achievement.
For Memphis to realize the successes places like New Orleans, New York City, and Denver have experienced, we have to put students first. We must create an environment –including a policy environment — that helps new ideas flourish and school leaders succeed. Memphis public education clearly has not been working for thousands of families, despite having the highest per pupil spending of any district in Tennessee.
When it comes to educating our students, particularly the ones who are the most at-risk, there is no margin for error. Policy makers involved with all public schools – public charter or traditional district schools — must pledge allegiance to the best interest of students and their families, not the status quo or to a power struggle among adults. The prosperity of our future depends on it.