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Students arrive for the start of the school day at Memphis Delta Preparatory, one of the charter schools in limbo after the school board deferred a closure vote in October 2018.

Students arrive for the start of the school day at Memphis Delta Preparatory, one of the charter schools in limbo after the school board deferred a closure vote in October 2018.

Memphis board likely to spare some struggling charter schools under new law — but could still close others

Taking advantage of newfound legal flexibility, Shelby County Schools board members signaled Tuesday that they are likely to spare at least some low-performing charter schools from closure.

But they also signaled that at least some local charter schools are likely to close at the end of the school year, just weeks away.

The board is scheduled to decide the fate of six low-performing Memphis charter schools next week, in a vote rescheduled from last October. The schools all appeared on the state’s most recent “priority list” of schools with low test scores.

Under state law, school boards are required to close charter schools on that list. But a bill that sailed through Tennessee’s legislature this spring would allow boards to make closure decisions for charter schools on a school-by-school basis, just as they already do for district-run schools.

Low-scoring charter schools could stay open as long as they have an improvement plan — and don’t land on a second priority list. The bill, which is awaiting Gov. Bill Lee’s signature, would require boards to close schools that are still on the list when it is revised three years later.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, board members signaled that they planned to use their new flexibility to spare schools that are relatively new or showing significant growth on test scores. Board member Stephanie Love specifically suggested that the board would exempt schools receiving a “growth score” of 4 or 5 on Tennessee’s five-point scale.

“The state of Tennessee [has] graciously allowed us to keep local control of our schools that are level 4 or 5,” Love said. “I feel that we need to afford the same opportunity to those charter schools as well — especially the ones that have appeared on the priority list for the very first time.”

Three of the six schools met Love’s standards for high growth last year: City University School Girls Preparatory, Du Bois Middle School of Arts Technology, and Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation.

The other three schools on the list also all appeared on the priority list for the first time but had comparatively low growth scores. They include two schools in a network that already closed its two high schools last year: Du Bois Academy of Arts and Technology, an elementary school, and Du Bois Middle School of Leadership Public Policy. They also include one local school, Memphis Delta Preparatory Academy, that lawmakers said they had in mind when crafting the new bill.

“Everyone agreed that [Delta Prep] was caught up in the law, but it wasn’t the intent of a law to require closing a charter school that has less than three years of data,” said Mark White, the Memphis representative who was one of the bill’s sponsors.

The board’s conversation with Joris Ray, the district’s interim superintendent, suggested that at least some of those schools could be closed — and that the district had already put contingency plans in place for the hundreds of students they enroll.

“Being that this is a conversation that’s been going on for months,” Love asked, “is there already a plan in place to address the students to make sure opportunities will be provided to them to enroll elsewhere?”

“And that plan has been communicated to parents?” asked another board member, Shante Avant.

“Yes,” Ray answered to both questions.

Advocates with the Tennessee Charter School Center said they expect Lee to sign the bill into law before the school board’s scheduled vote April 30. The bill says it would be effective immediately.

“It still ensures accountability for any persistently failing schools,” said Emily Lilley, the director of government relations for the charter center. “It also better aligns the process for charter schools that land on the priority list with the process for traditional public schools that land on the priority list.”

Below is the full language of the bill: