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Charter Oversight in MNPS

November 17, 2010

Charters are everyone’s favorite topic these days — the Obama administration loves them, there’s a movie about them (well, not explicitly about them, but you know), Nashville’s got a charter school incubator, and we have a couple of new ones in the pipeline.  The last week or so have seen a few stories about how they’re doing, and what the government and public education system is doing to keep an eye on them.  First was this brief story from the Tennesseean last week about the possible increase in Board control over charters:

Nashville’s charter schools may have more oversight by the Metro Nashville school board under a proposed new charter policy.

The board approved the first reading of a new charter policy Tuesday that will allow Metro’s Director of Schools Jesse Register to revoke charter school contracts if problems become evident.

The policy also asks that the district monitor the charter school to see if it’s progressing toward the goals outlined in its contract twice a year for the first two years of its inception and at least once each subsequent year.

The proposed policy, which Metro officials expect to adopt later this month, also requires that charter schools’ financial reports be analyzed quarterly.

This comes after Global Academy charter filed bankruptcy last month and another of the district’s charter schools, Smithson Craighead Academy, failed to meet state testing goals last year.

Yeah.  Global Academy is not one of our shining moments, I’ll grant you that.  I haven’t looked at the details of the proposed policy, but I am glad that we’re not just writing off Global as an “Oops!” moment and leaving it at that.  As I’ve written before, the whole point of charters is accountability and performance.

One thing I’d like to see?  More public accessibility.  Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d like to see a lot more of the documentation for charter schools online — especially applications and supporting documentation for proposed schools.  Lots of love to MNPS (because, as I hope I’ve demonstrated with my millions of links, the MNPS website is quite good, with a ton of information if you know where to look), but I’d like to see a lot more depth to the charter schools web space. The hearings in which new schools are grilled are public; shouldn’t the documents be as well?  If anything, the structure and budget of charter schools should be more open to the public because (1) As Global Academy has demonstrated, we as citizens and parents are taking a form of risk in putting our faith (and money) in a charter, and (2) If the promise of charters as laboratories of school reform is to be realized, we need transparency so that the effective techniques can be analyzed and emulated.

The other story, from WPLN, puts a more human face on the oversight of charter schools by focusing on Smithson-Craighead Academy:

Schools across Tennessee are anxiously awaiting state test scores to see if they’ll be labeled passing, struggling, or failing. At a Nashville charter school, Smithson-Craighead Academy, the stakes are high. It may close.

The charter school desperately wants to avoid a two-strikes-you’re-out ending. Math is the key that will keep doors open or shut them for good.

Two Strikes, You’re Out

The consequences of not meeting benchmarks were clear. State law says if a charter school doesn’t show progress in the same subject two years in a row, it closes. That strict accountability is in place because charters have a specific job.

They must find ways to teach kids who weren’t learning in traditional classrooms. Charters get public funds but decide teacher pay, class size, the entire school structure on their own. And if kids don’t show gains, the charter’s plug is pulled.

It’s a tough situation for any school to face closure — I feel for the teachers and administrators who are working at Smithson-Craighead and the pressure that they’re under.  I hope that they thinking smartly about how to get their scores where they need to be, and I hope they can pull it out.

For better or worse, though, this is what has to happen with charters.  We don’t want to be Ohio. I’m glad to see that MNPS, Nashville, and Tennessee are (or at least are seeming to be) careful and thoughtful in our embrace of charter schooling.  It’s a fad to be sure, but a fad that has at least some merit.  I continue to believe that charters are not a full-on system-wide scalable solution to what ails public education in this country, but I do believe they can be part of the solution.  We just have to make sure we implement them correctly.  It looks like, from what I’m seeing, we’re treading a careful path.  Measured steps, folks.  Measured steps.

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