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.

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

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.