For a picture of how Tennessee’s new charter school accountability law might play out on the ground, one might do well to look to Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering.
The Memphis charter school, known as MASE, has been on the upswing since it was identified as one of Tennessee’s lowest performing schools and placed on the state’s “priority list,” which consists of schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state as determined by three years of test scores, in 2012.
The Memphis City school board recommended that the school — Tennessee’s first charter — be closed when its ten-year charter came up for renewal. But funders, parents, and teachers rallied to save the school, saying those scores didn’t tell the whole story. After hitting a low point in 2010-11, most of the school’s scores have gone up, and in 2013 MASE earned the state’s highest ranking on the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, which measures growth in students’ test scores, in three of four categories.
But unless MASE continues to post dramatically improved scores, it could find itself on the chopping block again. The law, passed this spring, mandates the closure of charter schools whose test scores put them on the priority list. That means that MASE must get out and stay out of the bottom 5 percent or risk being closed — and that schools that find themselves in MASE’s place in future years might not have the chance to turn their act around.
MASE’s story illustrates the problems legislators aimed to tackle with the new law — and suggests the challenges that come along with mandating closure for low-performing schools. Those challenges include the prospect of shuttering some schools that might actually serve students well.
“Even if it’s on the priority list, it doesn’t mean the teachers aren’t quality teachers,” said Tiffany Jones, the mother of four MASE students. “It doesn’t mean the students aren’t quality students.”
A new focus on the bottom 5 percent of schools
School quality was legislators’ main concern when they agreed to strict accountability rules for charter schools this spring. Under the new law, a charter school on the priority list will be subject to having its charters revoked after the end of the school year in which it isidentified as a priority school. That means schools on the new priority list released this summer could close as early as 2015.
The law also brings consequences for low-performing charter schools more closely into line with regulations about what should happen to low-scoring district-run schools. The state’s current school accountability system, enacted in order to win a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, makes schools in the bottom 5 percent eligible for a number of turnaround efforts. Those include placement in the state-run Achievement School District or in districts’ innovation zones, both of which may turn schools over to a charter operator as a strategy for school improvement.
In Shelby County, the district cited schools’ priority status in decisions to close 10 non-charter public schools this summer.
“If we’re going to close the bottom 5 percent schools, if we want to consider Shelby County schools for state takeover, we should definitely make sure the schools that are in the bottom 5 percent that are already charter schools are treated no differently,” said Kevin Woods, chair of the Shelby County school board. He said the board planned to take on low-performing charter schools even without the new law.
But state representative John DeBerry, a Democrat from Memphis, said he thought the law was now harsher on charter schools than on public schools. District-run schools on the priority list can escape closure by being overhauled by new managers, but the law’s only stated remedy for charter schools is closure.
The current priority list includes three charter schools, but that may well climb when the new list is released because of charter schools’ share of the city’s schools is growing.
Filling a void in charter school accountability
National and local advocates applauded the legislature’s tough-love approach to charters. They say the law eases charter authorizers’ path to closing low-performing schools and will improve the quality of the charter sector in general.
“The law’s purpose is to stay consistent with the mission and intent behind the formation of charter schools: more autonomy for more accountability,” said Lee Harrell, the director of government relations for the Tennessee School Boards Association, which backed the bill.
That was the bargain that MASE struck when it won the state’s first charter in 2003. But for the first decade of its existence, the school faced few consequences for declining performance.
Only when its charter came up for renewal last year did the school’s authorizer strive to hold the school accountable for boosting student performance. That’s because before the new state law, there was no prescribed approach for Tennessee charter school authorizers with low-performing charter schools.
“There needed to be clear guidelines and performance benchmarks to hold schools accountable. That process didn’t exist,” said Greg Thompson, the director of the the Tennessee Charter School Center, which supports the publicly-funded, privately-run schools. Thompson’s organization supported the legislation, which reflects a national trend of laws aimed at closing low-performing charters.
The fuzzy regulations are one reason that no Shelby County charter school has ever closed solely due to poor performance.
District officials recommended to the school’s board that MASE be closed in 2012, saying that the school “clearly no longer challenges students” and that it had strayed from its plans to deliver an extraordinary, STEM-focused curricula. But after the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, a co-founder of the school, petitioned the board to consider the school’s upward trajectory, its seven years of solid scores, and its high graduation rate – and after legal counsel reassured the board that if the school was still struggling in two years, it could be shut down – the Memphis board voted 18 to 1 to keep it open.
Other Memphis charter schools have been closed for reasons that went beyond academic performance. Yo! Academy was shut in 2008 due to a combination of fiscal and academic concerns. Yo! Academy said it had not been given the chance to remediate students who came in far beyond grade level, and later sued the school district, claiming it had breached its contract — a situation that TSBA’s Harrell said illustrated the need for the new law.
“A lot of time, in some of these areas, it’s been so difficult to close a school procedurally and legally,” he said.
Strict regulations, but questions about what they will accomplish
The new law leaves little room for interpretation. Any charter school on the new priority list will be slated for closure, pending a single public hearing to verify the data that landed it there. The only exception is for charter operators in the Achievement School District and those are already turning around low-performing schools. They will have to land on the priority list twice to trigger the automatic closure clause.
The law requires charter authorizers to establish a transition team to communicate regularly with students and families, ensure that all relevant parties know the school is about to close, and ensure that instruction is continuing for students who attend the school.
Families will also need to be informed about where their children can attend school once their charter school closes — a tricky task in Memphis, where 69 public schools, more than a quarter of the city’s total, are on the current priority list.
“When we were first placed on the list, students received letters about other schools that they could attend. But, believe it or not, when we looked at those schools, most of them were doing worse than us,” said Ketia Francis, who led MASE’s middle school turnaround.
MASE took a hit when it landed on the priority list. Enrollment plummeted, from more than 600 students to closer to 300. Close to 15 percent of the school’s teachers, including some top performers, left. Media attention spotlighted shortcomings. A long-standing partnership with Christian Brothers University ended. And declining enrollment brought a shrinking budget.
But parents and teachers rallied. Parent Jones, who drives her children 35 minutes to the school each day, said morale in the building remained high. Francis, then the new middle school principal, worked to change the school’s culture, hired new teachers, and started using a new series of interim assessments. Middle school students had extra math courses and tutoring. The school is planning to revamp professional development for teachers and renew its focus on STEM next year.
But the school’s struggle also spurred increased attention and investment from charter school supporters, including the Bioworks Foundation and the Hyde Family Foundation.
MASE’s new executive director, Jammie Poole, argued that had the new law been in effect the last time the priority list came out, his school might not have had a chance to make improvements.
“It makes sense if the state creates this list and says, here’s what we want to see along the way, and then you can get off the list. Here’s the support to get off this list that you may need,” he said. “But if it’s just the list, and you close, I don’t know if that’s productive.”
Either way, he said, he is optimistic that MASE won’t be on the state’s new priority list.
“We’re rebranding,” said Poole, who previously led turnaround schools in Chicago and a network of schools in Massachusetts. “It’s been 10 years and a lot has happened. … But if you come back here in three weeks, you’ll see a different school.”
“This year, if we do what we anticipate doing, we will be off that list,” he added.