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Charter advocates push for tweaks to ASD enrollment eligibility

Students outside a school that's part of the state-run Achievement School District.
Students gather outside a school that's part of the state-run Achievement School District in Memphis.
Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Charter school advocates want Tennessee’s legislature to remove restrictions on which students can attend schools run by the state-run Achievement School District.

Schools being run by the ASD, which is tasked with improving the performance of schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state, can currently only enroll students who are zoned to schools that are also eligible for the ASD. Advocates are pushing for a change in the law that would allow students who are not zoned to ASD-eligible schools to attend state-run schools if they choose, according to Greg Thompson, the chief executive officer of the Tennessee Charter School Center.

Thompson said that the change would not go against the ASD’s mission to improve the lowest-performing schools in the state. He said that students zoned to the lowest-performing schools would still be prioritized.

In an email, Thompson wrote:

Right now, there are ASD charters that are under-enrolled because there are not enough ASD students (i.e. the district schools being converted by charter operators have been under-enrolled pre-charter conversion and it is difficult from a transportation standpoint to draw in kids from around the city that are ASD-zoned). The result is that a number of ASD charters have openings, but have to turn away families that are close to the school (in many cases, those students may not be ASD-zoned, but are still attending a very low performing school).

This restriction on ASD enrollment is unusual: Most of the schools in the ASD are run by charter management organizations, and most charter schools in the state of Tennessee are able to enroll any student who wishes to apply. Any student in Shelby County Schools can enroll in a charter school authorized by the Shelby County school board, for instance.

ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic told Chalkbeat in December that the requirement that the ASD’s schools remain “neighborhood schools” gave charter operators a shot to disprove allegations that they achieve good results by “creaming” students, or somehow enrolling students who are “easier to educate” than those who remain in regular public schools.

But Thompson said a change in the law would still allow the ASD to create better schools for students in the lowest-performing schools. From Thompson’s email:

The spirit of this is to continue prioritizing ASD zoned students and to ensure every student who is ASD – zoned has a spot in the charter school of his/her choice — but not let seats go unfilled (which is a waste of resources and is denying good education options to families who are zoned to low performing schools (maybe just not zoned to schools low enough to make it in the bottom 5%).

In a profile of the ASD released last spring, Nelson Smith, a senior advisor to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, wrote that the neighborhood-schools requirement “waters down one of the main tenets of chartering, which is that parents should be able to choose any school in the jurisdiction that is right for their child.”

Megan Quaile, who is preparing to open a new Green Dot public charter school in Fairley High School as part of the ASD, said “If you live in Memphis and want to go to the school, I don’t know why we’d not allow you.”

The number of school choice options within Shelby County has been growing in recent years. More than 10 percent of public school students in Shelby County now attend public charter schools rather than public schools run directly by the Shelby County school system.

The ASD is planning to expand the number of schools it runs over the next few years. This shift in enrollment regulations would also allow each individual school to potentially expand its enrollment, if nearby parents were interested in attending. That would likely affect the number of students attending Shelby County Schools, which is currently planning to close 13 schools in the coming year, including three that are in the process of being taken over by the ASD, due primarily to under-enrollment.

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