Charter growth

Tennessee ranks nation’s third highest for charter school openings this school year

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Tennis great Andre Agassi cuts the ribbon as business partner Bobby Turner watches during the official opening last October of Rocketship's newest Nashville charter school.

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.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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