Tenn. Ed Commissioner: Charter School Refusal is Bad Policy

Whether for financial reasons or because communities are in upheaval over a pending school merger, school districts that systemically deny charter school applications have come under fire from Kevin Huffman, Tennessee’s state commissioner for education, writes Jane Roberts at The Commercial Appeal.

“We need to get out of the business of believing that (the per-pupil) funding belongs to the school system, that our goal is to preserve funding for that school system.”

Huffman believes that “parents should have a role in figuring out where their kid is going to go to school, and it is appropriate for funding to move with the child to a new public school.”

This comes after the unified Shelby County Board of Education’s decision to deny 17 applications for new charter schools, which seems to be wholly financial. Estimated enrollment in the 12 Memphis charter schools, plus growth in its existing 25 charters, would cost MCS about $24 million. State Treasurer David Lilliard will rule on the school board’s decision within a month.

Based on enrollment projections, Memphis City Schools expects almost three thousand students to transfer to the new charters, while Shelby County expects it would lose 400 students next year to charter transfers if the board is forced to approve the applications. This loss would compound the declining enrollment that both districts are suffering from.

Yet, Huffman finds it “hard to imagine” that districts already struggling with the “influx and outflux” of students would say that losing per-pupil funding “means somehow we can’t open any of these schools.”

“I don’t think that is an appropriate way to think about things,” he said.

Board members say that the district’s positions might have been different if charters were proposing to take over entire schools. But because students transfer a few at time in targeted areas, the local school board still has to maintain and staff the same number of classrooms and pay the same number of bus drivers.

Parents that attended the school board meeting this week broadly expressed support for the vote.

“The charter schools concept is a ‘theory of action’ for reform of education,” said SCS board member Betty Mallott.

“That theory is still being tested in Tennessee and throughout the nation. Because education funding is shrinking along with other public service funding, we are all competing for the same meager funds,” she said.