Closures Intrinsic to Charter-School System

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MNPS officials hear from parents frustrated over the closure at Smithson-Craighead Middle on November 19. Daniel Potter/WPLN

MNPS officials hear from parents frustrated over the closure at Smithson-Craighead Middle on November 19. Daniel Potter/WPLN

Families and Metro education officials are being reminded charter schools aren’t necessarily permanent. Charters are ramping up in Tennessee, boasting some ten thousand students. They get public money to run their own way, on the promise they’ll put up good test scores. But some charters inevitably fall short, and shutting them down is a messy process.

Since Tennessee started its charter program a decade ago, only three have failed. The latest is Smithson-Craighead Middle, which has to shut down when the school-year ends. At a tense meeting with district officials there last week, angry parents said they felt blindsided. Kimberly Abernathy thought it unfair to single out the mostly black middle school after just three years.

“Why is everybody else that’s failing, in the bottom five, why aren’t they on the chopping block as well?! Their lives are not being upset, their lives are not being turned around,” Abernathy said.

The man in charge of charters for Metro, Alan Coverstone, tried to explain. Charter schools are different from traditional public schools. While they get the usual public-school funding, they’re free to experiment with how they teach, or stay open longer hours. And Coverstone emphasized they can be closed, if they don’t get results.

“That’s the contract that hasn’t been honored in terms of the results on the back end,” Coverstone said.

State test scores at Smithson-Craighead Middle were dismal. Only one kid in five was proficient in reading. For math, it was worse – not even one in ten. But parents didn’t want to send their kids back to regular public schools. After a couple emotional hours, Principal DeAundra Jenkins-Holder closed out by dropping the microphone.

“I don’t even know why we will continue this meeting, because he’s not going to give you the honest answers that you deserve,” Jenkins-Holder said. “I’m sorry, but this is a joke to me!”

Nationally, around 12 to 15 percent of charters end up failing. And there are more charters in play in Tennessee, after state lawmakers eased some restrictions in the last couple years. Since then, the number of charters has roughly doubled. State House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Nashville Republican, says she agonizes for families hurt by the closure. However:

“I think one of the things I admire most about public charter schools is that they can be closed. I think that is a good thing,” Harwell said. “When schools aren’t performing, they should be closed, because children are hurt when these schools don’t perform. So I’m proud of the law that we passed and are implementing.”

You can’t have charter schools without some failures, says Claire Smrekar, a Vanderbilt-Peabody professor who often writes about charters. And the timing will never be pleasant. As the saying goes, ‘if you want to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs.’

“I like that analogy. This is a risk-reward system. So there’s always going to be risk in a system of public choices like charter schools. But the reward can be this really great array of options, of differences offered to parents.”

Smrekar says charters that never shut down when they fail might as well be traditional public schools. With more than a dozen new schools in the pipeline for next year, more messy closures are bound to follow.

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