Emily Evans, Council Member District 23, gave a thoughtful and informative presentation Saturday on the issues surrounding charter schools and education reform at the meeting of the Green Hills Republican Breakfast Group. She explained the Tennessee’s “parent trigger” law, the name given to laws that allow parents to convert a regular school into a charter school, and discussed what education reform is needed to make real improvements in education.
The “trigger law” is provided for in the state’s charter school act. It says that if 60 percent of parents or teachers at any school sign a petition, they can convert a traditional public school into a charter school, provided the local school board agrees to the conversion. Unlike when the local school board rejects a regular charter school application, however, and the applicant may appeal the decision to the State Board of Education, as happened recently when the Metro Board of Education rejected the Great Hearts application, there is no appeal of the local school boards decision regarding a charter conversion application.
She gave an example of a particular school that would be a good candidate for conversion. The school is under performing and has been plagued with problems. Last year, there was a five day period in which the school could not send home any homework because the copier was broken. “It is a place where people who care can’t seem to break through and change it,” she said.
She explained that if 60% of the parents signed a petition to convert, the Board would have to consider it. A PTO or any group of parents could launch the petition drive she said. Then, if the Board approved the conversion, the parents could put out a request for proposals and find a company or someone to manage it. If there were parents who did not want to keep their child in the converted charter school, they could send the child to the next nearest public school.
Council member Evans said that while vouchers and charter schools may be options for dealing with the failure of public schools that they are a response to a problem and not a solution to the problem of public schools. They are not a panacea and have problems of their own. One problem with charter schools said Ms Evans, is that they drain dollars out of the traditional schools. While the dollars follow the child, some cost in traditional schools are fixed or relatively fixed cost and do not decrease proportionately to the decrease in enrollment. She said the performance of charter schools also was a “mixed bag” and not all charter schools out perform traditional public schools. Also, if charter schools grow, we are going to develop a parallel system and these charter schools will want their own facilities of which they can be proud. Now, they are meeting in basements and old building. They will want their own campuses which means building new schools in existing neighborhoods and that is difficult to do.
Also magnet schools and academies are a solution for some parents who seek a superior education for their children but by “skimming off the best and brightest” out of existing zoned schools, the zoned school from which the children are pulled suffers from the loss of these students. Rather than charter schools and vouchers and magnet schools and academies, we need real reform of the education system.
What needs to happen is we need to change the culture of public education. We need massive reform but real reform will be difficult to achieve. One impediment to reform said Council Member Evans is a state law called “maintenance of effort,” which is interpreted to mean we cannot cut the local school budget. Thus a mayor may not force reform. He can’t put condition on the money that goes to schools. There is little a mayor can do to improve education.
The primary problem says Council Member Evans is that we have too much bureaucracy at both the state and local level. There are too many rules and regulations. The rules governing schools makes Medicaid look streamlined and efficient. Principals really don’t manage. They obey the central office and comply with a bunch of arcane rules that make no sense and often become nothing more than paper pushers for the central office.
Local schools need autonomy she said. “What we know works, and it works wherever we are, is that a great principal who can hire and fire and manage his budget and develop a curriculum around the population he serves can create a great school.”
If you get a chance to hear a presentation by Emily Evans on school reform, don’t miss it. She made more sense than anyone I have ever heard speak on the topic. She has identified the problem and knows what needs to be done to fix it.