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Charter sector interest in Tennessee grows again

School districts across Tennessee likely will have more charter school applications to consider this year – mostly from existing operators that want to expand.

As of this week’s deadline, at least 48 organizations had filed letters of intent to apply, compared with 43 last year.

Most of the interest is in Memphis and Shelby County, home to the state’s highest concentration of underperforming schools and where 56 charter schools already operate. Twenty-five organizations have filed letters to apply for a charter with Shelby County Schools. Of those, 15 are proposed expansions of networks currently operating schools in the county and 10 are proposals from new operators.

Metro Nashville Public Schools experienced a similar uptick, with 17 letters of intent filed, almost doubling the number from last year. Of those, 14 propose expansions of networks currently operating schools in the district and three are proposals from new operators.

Elsewhere in the state, Jackson/Madison County received two letters of intent, while school districts in Knox, Haywood and Fayette counties received one each.

All applicants have until April 1 to formally apply for district authorization.

“We think this reflects the high number of quality operators we have in the state that are poised for growth and have a desire and ability to serve more students,” said Justin Testerman, chief operating officer for the Tennessee Charter School Center, an advocacy group with offices in Memphis and Nashville.

Last October, the National Alliance for Public School Charters rated Tennessee’s charter school sector one of the healthiest in the nation, and lauded authorizers for being more “finicky” than authorizers in other states.

Charter schools are independently operated but publicly funded schools. They tend to cluster in areas where there is philanthropic money, charter school incubators and underperforming schools.

In Tennessee, only local school districts and the state’s Achievement School District (ASD), which oversees the state’s lowest-performing schools, can authorize a charter school under state law. The state Board of Education also can authorize charters on appeal.

The ASD may receive additional applications this year. Its deadline for letters of intent from charter hopefuls is March 24.

While the letters don’t necessarily mean that all will apply or receive authorization – statewide, 16 new charters were approved last year and just two were given the green light in Shelby County – activity from the charter sector is having an impact.

Especially in Memphis and Nashville, charters have siphoned off students and funding from traditional schools. In Memphis, administrators have attempted to retain students to avoid further budget cuts and school closings. Last month in Nashville, school board member Will Pinkston proposed a moratorium against new schools, including charters, until the district can grapple with how to balance charter and traditional school growth.

The Tennessee General Assembly allowed for charter schools in 2002. Four opened in 2003. Today, there are 79.

Advocates say charter schools remove bureaucracy to help improve educational opportunities for children who need it the most. Critics say they stand to dismantle the public school system and point toward research that shows charter school students don’t perform significantly better than in the traditional public schools they came from.

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