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Statewide Charter Commission Will Ensure High Bar for Charter Schools

Monday, May 20, 2019 | 03:11pm

By Lillian Hartgrove, chair of the State Board of Education and Dr. Sara H. Morrison, executive director of the State Board of Education

Tennessee families have access to a variety of school choices for their children – including local public schools, public charter schools and other non-public entities. In this landscape, public charter school authorizers play a critical role inensuring that high quality charter schools are able to open, and that only those that deliver excellent outcomes retain the privilege of serving students and families. Under state law, local school districts operate traditional public schools and may approve any public charter school for operation within the district. In select circumstances, the state is also able to approve a charter operator’s application.

The State Board of Education’s (SBE) chief responsibility is making policy decisions for Tennessee's K-12 public schools, and our staff and members work diligently to make sure every rule on our books-- from teacher certification, to graduation requirements, to school bus safety-- is student-focused, rigorous and relevant.

But for the last five years, the SBE has also served as an appellate charter school authorizer and currently oversees three schools. While we have relished the deep engagement with students, teachers and leaders, we also recognize the growing time, attention, and resources required to continue to authorize and oversee schools in a way that best serves students.

This year, the Tennessee General Assembly took an important step by approving Governor Bill Lee’s proposal to establish an independent statewide authorizer of public charter schools. Made up of members from across the state who will be thoughtfully selected and trained to hear appeals and make authorizing decisions, this commission will enable deeper engagement with local districts and their stakeholders—ensuring decisions to open or close public charter schools are made based on the specific needs of local students.

This is also an important step forward because it enables the SBE to focus on evaluating the effectiveness of our public charter school authorizers and supporting them to adhere to best practices that boost student outcomes. This is critical since authorizers determine the schools they want to open, expectations for their success, and what happens if they fail to make good on promises they make to families.

We believe this role aligns well with our broader policymaking and oversight duties, as the SBE has expanded in recent years to fulfill an important set of functions for the students, families, and citizens of Tennessee. This includes our work to establish and maintain a transparent review process for our state’s K-12 academic standards, reporting on and approving educator preparation programs that produce the next generations of Tennessee’s teachers, and regulating educator licensure and misconduct. In addition to these responsibilities, we will continue to refine Tennessee’s public charter school authorizing standards that dictate expectations for the practices of this commission and other local authorizers.

The SBE stands ready to assist in establishing policies and processes for the commission, and will support their success as they begin hearing appeals and overseeing public charter schools in the 2021-2022 school year.

Ensuring only the best public charter schools are operating in our state enhances the high-quality school choice options available to Tennessee families. We believe this statewide commission will help further our goal as a state to ensure every student has access to an excellent education.

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The State Board of Education is the governing and policy-making body for Tennessee’s preK-12 public education system. Through a close partnership with the Tennessee Department of Education, the Board maintains oversight in K-12 implementation and academic standards. Its eleven-member board, composed ofrepresentatives from each congressional district and a student member, are unpaid governor’s appointees and confirmed by the legislature to serve five-year terms.