Achievement School District

Senate panel approves bill to expand enrollment eligibility for state-run charter schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Barbic before the Senate Education Committee with state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

The Senate Education Committee voted Wednesday to advance a bill that would expand eligibility for enrollment in state-authorized charter schools beyond their residential zones.

If approved by the entire Tennessee General Assembly, the bill would modify enrollment restrictions for many of Tennessee’s lowest-performing public schools that currently operate in Memphis and Nashville. State officials estimate the change would draw an additional 400 students to the schools.

Lawmakers passed the bill 7-0, with two abstentions, after questioning state Education Department officials at length about the bill’s intent and potential impact. The proposal was filed by Rep. Harry McCormick (R-Chattanooga) and Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville) on behalf of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration.

At the center of debate is Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD), which was created in 2010 with federal grant money and charged with turning around Tennessee’s lowest performing schools. The ASD has since taken control of 23 of the state’s 85 lowest-performing “priority” schools and has authorized nonprofit charter organizations to operate 18 of those.

Currently, the ASD and its charters must operate under the same residential zoning laws as traditional schools in local districts. The bill would open the door to allow out-of-zone students to enroll in the ASD’s charters, but only after all students who currently are eligible are enrolled. The new students must be identified as low-income or performing below proficiency level academically and could comprise no more than 25 percent of the school’s total population.

Many ASD-authorized charters operate in school buildings that are underutilized and could accommodate more students than allowed under the current enrollment restrictions.

However, ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic said school choice is the primary driver behind the bill. He said families are doing their research and coming to the charter schools asking to enroll their children – only to be turned away. “This is less about not being full; and it’s more about just giving families an option if they want to send their kid to one of our schools,” he said.

Some lawmakers asked why any out-of-zone parent would choose to send their child to a school designated as a low-performing priority school.

“The reason families want to send their kids to these schools is – after a couple years – they’re not failing any more. They’re doing better, and word’s on the street that this is a better school,” Barbic said.

He reported that schools in their third year under ASD oversight have seen a “dramatic” increase in math and science scores, although reading scores remain flat.

“What about a charter school that’s just trying to take on some new kids to raise their scores so the school looks better by taking from schools outside the geographic zone?” asked Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown).

Barbic said changes under the bill would be negligible and that the proposal is not designed to provide a “backdoor” to advance charter results. “Schools are going to get to the top quartile because they’ve set up a strong program with a great leader and hard-working teachers – the same thing that makes every great school a great school,” he said.

Sen. Reginald Tate (D-Memphis) questioned the need to change the enrollment process if the change would only impact about 400 students, as estimated by Barbic.

“All this will allow us to do,” Barbic said, “is if there are open seats after we’ve served all the kids that are zoned from the neighborhood and all the kids that are zoned to a priority school want to come, we think those parents should have a chance to come.”

Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) commended Barbic for his work on behalf of Tennessee’s most vulnerable students but said he would pass on casting a vote on the measure. “I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of input from my Upper East Tennessee district, and it’s all been negative. I haven’t had one call or comment that wants this,” he said. “My largest county – Washington County – they take all their sales tax dollars and put it toward education so they fear any movement of money around.”

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Critics of the bill – and of charter schools – say the proposal would harm traditional public schools by siphoning off both students and funding.

The bill’s fiscal note said some state and local money through Tennessee’s education funding formula “may shift” to charter schools as a result of the bill. “The extent of any such shift cannot be reasonably determined,” the note says.

Barbic’s appearance before the Senate panel was his first in three years and included interesting exchanges with lawmakers as he defended the work of the unique state-run school district.

“There’s 22 bills that have been filed right now that are either trying to kill [the ASD] or pull it apart, and this thing hasn’t even gotten out of the petri dish,” he said, noting that the first schools under ASD oversight are only in their third year of operation.

Discussing the challenging work of wresting control of schools from local districts in an effort turn them around quickly, Barbic spoke passionately.

“The Achievement School District makes the state accountability system real. So the days of … neglecting certain schools over other schools because maybe the parents aren’t going to say as much, those days are over,” he said. “Districts now know that if they don’t do what needs to be done in every school for all kids, that there’s a real consequence.

“I know it’s controversial. I know it’s hard,” he said. “… Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of controversy around the work we’re trying to do to improve these schools, and there’s not nearly enough controversy around how in the heck did these schools get in this shape in the first place?”

Contact Marta W. Aldrich at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

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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.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede