Tennessee added more charter schools this school year than almost any other state in the nation, according to a report released Wednesday.
The state opened 20 new charter schools serving 11,000 new students, growing its sector by 25 percent and its student enrollment by 48 percent. That ranks Tennessee third highest for charter school growth in the 2015-16 school year, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
The only states outpacing Tennessee were California, with 80 new schools, and Florida, with 38. And unlike California and Florida, which each closed more than 30 charter schools this school year, Tennessee didn’t close any.
Overall, Tennessee now has 100 charter schools — the 19th most in the nation. States with the most are California, Texas, Florida and Arizona.
Nationally, more than 400 charter schools opened this school year, with about 270 ceasing operations, the report says.
Charter schools are publicly funded and are held to the same academic standards as other public schools. But unlike traditional public schools, charters have independent boards, and the nonprofit organizations that operate them have total control over their schools’ budget, hiring, curriculum and schedule.
In Tennessee, charter schools can be authorized by a local school board, the state-run Achievement School District, or the State Board of Education.
The sector’s fast growth in Tennessee has garnered fans who view charters as an innovative tool for school improvement and parent choice — and critics who blame them for siphoning off enrollment and funding from traditional schools. In Memphis and Nashville, where the sector has grown the most, the changing educational landscape has created tension with local school boards over issues such as where charter schools get to open, how much they pay in rent, which students they serve, and what district services they can tap into. Both districts have approved charter compact agreements in an effort to address such matters.
Tennessee opened the door to charter schools under a 2002 state law, and their ranks have grown steadily with enticements from local and national philanthropists. The state’s original law has gradually been loosened, lifting a cap on charter schools and allowing any student to attend one, rather than just low-income students, as the original law stipulated.
Federal education policy has encouraged the sector’s growth and funded it through grant programs such as Race to the Top, which helped establish Tennessee’s Achievement School District, a school improvement initiative that oversees 24 charters in Memphis and Nashville, with plans to add four more next year in Memphis.The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization advocating for the expansion of high-quality charter schools. You can read the group’s full report here.