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Two charter schools operated in Hamilton County last school year. Another is expected to join them this fall.
LUCAS L. JOHNSON II, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Proponents of charter schools laud them as an innovative way to educate those who simply want to learn, but critics say a provision of recently passed Tennessee legislation that opens enrollment to students who aren't in failing schools defeats the purpose of charter institutions.
On the last day of the General Assembly in May, state lawmakers sent Gov. Bill Haslam a bill that removes the cap on charter schools and allows any student in the charter school's jurisdiction to attend. The first-term Republican governor, who made the changes a top priority of his education agenda, signed the bill last week and was at a charter school in Memphis on Wednesday for a ceremonial signing that highlighted the changes.
Haslam told reporters after the ceremony that at-risk youth won't be overlooked.
"If someone starts a charter school, the low-income families in that neighborhood get the priority," he said.
Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville said he's not necessarily against charter schools, but he's strongly opposed to opening up enrollment because he believes it will hurt the traditional intention of helping students from failing schools and those on free and reduced lunch.
"What the bill says very simply is ... our commitment to children in failing schools and other children who had been failed by the system is deleted in its entirety," Stewart said. "And instead charter schools can serve all students without any commitment or restriction."
He noted that a Democratic amendment failed during session that would require half of the students admitted to charter schools to be from among those they traditionally serve.
Tennessee Education Association lobbyist Jerry Winters said the provision runs the risk of "really just having some private schools set up and using public dollars to fund them."
"Charter schools were originally created to serve children who most need special attention," he said. "And opening it up to everyone is really totally contradictory to the original intent of the charter school law."
Haslam dismissed the privatization notion on Wednesday.
"It's not privatization at all," he said. "This is public dollars for a public school, following the same accountability standards as any other school."
Republican Rep. Mark White of Memphis said traditional students won't be neglected, even though critics decry the provision's lack of commitment to such students.
"Let's say this school can take 600 students," said White, a co-sponsor of the legislation. "After ... taking the kids like that, say the school fills up with 400. You still got 200 slots" for other students.
Charter schools are funded with state and local tax dollars but don't have to meet some of the state regulations that traditional public schools do as they try to find different ways to improve student learning.
More than a dozen states loosened restrictions on charters over the past year for a chance to win a share of the federal $4.3 billion Race to the Top school reform competition.
Todd Ziebarth is vice president of state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He said the open enrollment provision puts Tennessee in line with other states and benefits not only more students, but parents because it gives them more options.
"If you look across the country, most states allow all types of students to enroll in charters," Ziebarth said. "Tennessee was unique in being one of the only places that had such heavy restrictions on types of students that could enroll."
Parent Penny Tyler said she likes having the option of a charter school for her 9-year-old son.
"I think as parents, the more choices and options that we have, the better for us and our kids," said Tyler, 38. "All of our kids are different. They learn different, have different needs."
White said he believes open enrollment will create diversity that "brings a different kind of framework into the classroom."
"You don't just have the kids who see things one way because of the neighborhood they live in," he said. "So I think it can be good."
Regardless of the open enrollment provision, opponents of charter schools as a whole are against removing the cap in Tennessee. Currently, the number of charter schools is capped at 90 statewide. There are currently 40 in four school districts: 25 in Memphis, 11 in Nashville, three in Hamilton County and one in Shelby County.
Three schools have been approved to open next year in Nashville, and one in Knoxville, according to the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, which is expecting an enrollment of about 8,000 students statewide.
House Democratic Caucus Leader Mike Turner of Nashville said the focus should be on improving the current public education system.
"I understand they're a tool," said Turner, referring to charter schools. "But they were a tool to try to fix a problem in public education, and I don't think that we ever really tried to fix the problem that we had."
Nationwide, about 5 percent of public school students are enrolled in charters, but that number is expected to rise significantly because of increased financial and political support.
The number of charter schools grew from 4,919 in 2009-2010 to 5,277 in 2010-2011, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Despite the skeptics, Ziebarth said he expects charter schools to continue growing.
"I don't see any states backing off charter schools at the moment," he said. "In fact, Illinois recently passed a law ... that would change the authorizing approval procedures for charter schools throughout the state, which we think is going to lead to more robust growth."
As for Tennessee's legislation, Ziebarth said he's concerned about another provision that would allow local school boards to reject charter applications if they might have a fiscal impact on the district.
"What I'm afraid of is they've removed the cap on charters, but in place of it, they've put in this fiscal impact language which will in practice effectively serve as a cap on growth," he said.
Winters said the provision is necessary.
"We do not need the state running local school systems," he said. "I think that's an important provision."