Hard Knocks

Charter Schools aren't failing us. Let's return the favor.

Large government bureaucracies often act like organisms that see innovations as viruses they must attack.

That's why so many promising ideas are suffocated in their infancies, and why after 30 years of talking about it, city and county governments still are trying to consolidate their engineers' offices.

The most telling example of this bureaucratic antipathy is found in Memphis City Schools' attitude toward charter schools. A district beset by controversies, federal and state investigations, and academic inertia, and with 78 percent of parents giving the schools a grade of C or lower, should claim charter schools as a much-needed success story.

After all, every charter school in Memphis is part of the city school district. It's just hard to tell it by the way those schools are treated.

It began when the Tennessee Legislature passed the charter school law in 2002, but after intense lobbying from educators, lawmakers capped the number of charter schools in Memphis at 20 and refused to allow every student the opportunity to attend.

Despite the hurdles, interest in Memphis was immediate. The state's first charter school opened in 2003, eight more followed, and four new ones are now in the works. The rest of Tennessee has only three, all in Nashville.

On the best days, city school officials gave charter schools lip service, and on the worst, they treated them like pariahs, a disdain most vividly on display when Yo! Academy was closed last year with a speed thought impossible in the school district.

In recommending the closing, Interim Superintendent Dan Ward said he would not condemn students to attend a school that's not working. Left unspoken was the fact that 100 regular city schools clearly fell into the same category. Also, Yo! Academy was shut down after being on the state's high-priority list for one year while more than 20 regular schools had been on the list for six straight years.

In the past four years, charter schools have received little help and support from the central office. Lines of communications have been fragile, if not nonexistent, most of the time.

Things have marginally improved since Ward took charge upon the departure of former superintendent Carol Johnson. While acknowledging that charter schools are not the district's "core business," he takes a decidedly less adversarial view of them.

Sometimes, it seems that district officials — and the teachers union in particular — fear that the autonomy given to charters to hire their own teachers and principals and the accountability built into the schools could infect the established educational order of things even though only 2,700 of the district's 115,000 students attend charter schools.

Meanwhile, charter school students are doing significantly better on state tests than comparable students in regular city schools, according to the annual analysis of the University of Memphis Center for Research in Education Policy. In addition, researchers report that parents and teachers are much more satisfied with the charter schools' environments than regular city schools.

These results are even more impressive considering that the charter schools are being shortchanged. State law says students in charter schools will get the same amount of public money spent on them as other students; however, calculations by Memphis City Schools result in payments that are about 25 percent less.

To compound the financial stress, charter schools, in keeping with state law, don't get any county government bond money for construction and renovation. As a result, their organizers spend considerable time raising the missing funds.

All of this benign neglect makes little sense to outsiders, particularly in the midst of the controversies rocking Memphis City Schools.

Over at one charter school — Circles of Success Learning Academy (COSLA) — elementary students regularly recite a creed that says in part: "I am capable of meeting every challenge that I must face. I will use my physical, mental, and spiritual capacities to reach my destiny. I will not try to make anyone feel less than me nor allow anyone to make me feel less than the person I am. I will never bring reproach on myself or my school. I am responsible for my own success."

It's a creed that speaks to the central philosophy of charter schools, where its advocates see themselves as part of a movement rather than just as operators of a few schools. As uplifting as it is to hear young students repeat the creed, it would be even more uplifting if it was coming from Memphis City Schools. M

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