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Shelby County Schools backs away from tighter rules on struggling charter schools

Aug. 12, 2019 first day of school  Shelby County Schools charter school walking from school dismissal About 1,000 middle and high school students are enrolled at Memphis Business Academy’s campus in Frayser.

Memphis Business Academy Middle was one of the schools that would have been affected by the rule change that Superintendent Joris Ray withdrew Tuesday.

Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray withdrew a proposal Tuesday night that would have threatened 16 low-performing charter schools with closure.

Ray defended his intent in proposing the rule change for the struggling charter schools, which enroll nearly 30% of charter school students. 

“Our interpretation of the policy and goal with the adjustment is to ensure that the office of charter schools could provide support to schools much earlier,” Ray told school board members Tuesday, adding he heard from many charter school principals and leaders after he proposed the rule change.

“We are committed to a strong collaboration that ensures equity and fairness on behalf of students in our district,” Ray said.

Charter school leaders have long complained the district has not given them enough notice about low performance before recommending closure. Last July, the board approved a policy meant to provide clearer guidelines for revocation, approval, and expansion of charter schools. Ray’s proposed rule change would have modified how the district carried out that policy.  Board members have been observing how the policy plays out and have expressed interest in tweaking it to avoid unintended consequences.

The district ranks charter schools on a 5-point scale, with 5 being the highest. If a charter school scores below a 2, the district flags it for improvement and puts it on a path to losing its charter in two years if test results don’t improve. The proposed rules that were withdrawn Tuesday would have triggered improvement plans for schools scoring below a 3.

In other charter school decisions, the school board approved contract changes for five charter schools and delayed a vote on four others.

The board also rejected four new charter school applications: Bluff City Collegiate, Cornerstone Prep School, Luceo Collegiate School of the Arts, and Memphis School of Excellence Cordova. Rejected applicants may revise their petition and return for a final vote later this year. The Shelby County Schools board often agrees with staff recommendations to deny charter school applications in the first round of voting, giving applicants a chance to add details to their petitions.

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