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Schoolhouse Rock

Charter schools promise more power to parents and teachers. But will they deliver in Tennessee? It depends on who's in charge.

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

JOHNSON CITY -- Splashed along one of the otherwise white walls of Bill Smith's office is a space battle mural, with green flying saucers and alien gun ships blasting orange and yellow beams at each other across an expanse of black paint. In the corner, it says "3rd Grade, 1980."

It's not a normal third-grade project, or a normal decorating scheme for a principal's office--but then, this is not a normal school. It's the University School on the campus of East Tennessee State University, and it's some reformers' idea of what a public school ought to be: independent, innovative, and small, the product of close collaboration between teachers, parents, and students. It's technically part of the Washington County School System, but all decisions about what to teach--and how and when to teach it--are local. When the school needs to hire teachers, it forms search committees of teachers, parents, and students to interview and recommend candidates.

"Essentially, what Washington County does for us is fund us," says Smith, who took the reins of the school just over a year ago. "No curriculum coordinator from Washington County has ever been in this building while I've been here."

University School dates back to 1911, but it could be a taste of what's to come in Tennessee. A national wave of school reform, under the banner of something called "charter schools," is lapping at the Volunteer State's borders. Proponents see the independent schools--which are usually self-governed by boards of teachers and parents--as nothing less than a revolution, a liberation of public education from the constraints of bureaucracy and standardized mediocrity. Detractors--mostly people within public education--see them as a fad at best and a threat to very idea of free and equal education at worst.

Edison Redux

Chris Whittle's for-profit schools are alive and kicking

A few years back, things didn't look too good for The Edison Project, former Knoxvillian Chris Whittle's plan to reshape American education.

A U.S. News and World Report story in December 1994 described Edison as "on the brink of collapse." As recently as last winter, The Nation--a liberal magazine that staunchly opposes the company's school privatization approach--was crowing that Edison was "in tatters...managing just four schools around the country and scrounging for operating funds on Wall Street."

Guess again. Edison may still be in its infancy, but it's very much alive, helped by a tide of education reform that includes the charter school movement. And Whittle, the company's founder and president, sounds as confident and upbeat as ever.

"The early results are promising, the academic data is in the right direction," he says, speaking from Edison's New York City offices.

He's got reason for optimism. Granted, Edison's basic concept--running public schools for profit, under contract with local school boards--got some bad PR when a different company, Education Alternatives Inc., failed spectacularly in a similar arrangement with Baltimore city schools.

But Whittle says Edison is on track, with contracts to operate 25 schools in eight states this fall, up from 12 schools a year ago. The company expects its revenues to grow this year to $70 million from $37 million. Whittle attributes early doom and gloom talk about the company to impatience and misunderstandings.

"Three or four years ago, we basically were in the R & D phase, and it's very easy to criticize something when it's not even born yet...And obviously when Whittle Communications had its difficulties, that didn't help matters."

It also didn't help that Whittle had initially painted Edison in bold terms as a national chain of schools, rhetoric he says was necessary to explain the concept.

"We were always going to have to build it from the ground up," he says. "But I don't think our goals have changed. We are trying to push the envelope, and I think [we're] doing so in a variety of different ways. And there's a lot of belief that what Edison is doing and what Edison represents beyond its own walls is important."

According to Edison officials, several of the schools they manage have shown demonstrable improvements in student achievement. At Dodge-Edison Elementary School in Wichita, Kan., for example, fifth-grade students increased their reading and math scores dramatically from 1995 to 1996.

Whittle expects the company to continue to grow annually, although he's not sure how fast.

"The limits are about logistics," he says. "We're not constrained by [lack of] demand. We could open far more schools than we're currently opening each year. But you have to [ask], how many schools can you quality control, how much capital is available at any one time?"

While Edison is not directly related to the charter school movement, Whittle says both spring from the same desire to offer new educational approaches. Five of the Edison schools are charter schools, and all of the states where the company has a presence--California, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, and Texas--have charter school laws.

"The charter school movement is important to us," Whittle acknowledges. "The same folks who support charter schools also usually support what Edison is doing."

So now that Tennessee may be getting a charter law, will Edison be far behind?

"We are very interested in Tennessee," Whittle says. "Citizens here and there in Tennessee have been in touch with us...We're not in Tennessee yet, but we do plan to be. And we're looking forward to it."


The movement is too young to boast any concrete successes, and has had a few embarassments. But supporters say early results are promising, both academically and in the enthusiasm they generate in their communities.

On the surface, Tennessee has been AWOL from the debate, which has so far produced charter school legislation and nearly 700 schools in 28 states. But a struggle over the issue is shaping up here, largely unnoticed by either educators or the media. A proposed law is already making its way through the state Legislature. At stake is what kind of charter schools Tennessee will have, and who will control them.

The education establishment--in the form of the Tennessee School Boards Association and the Tennessee Education Association, which represents teachers--is maneuvering to put its own imprint on any legislation that passes. Other charter proponents accuse TSBA and TEA of fostering the illusion of education reform while squashing any real effort to change the way public schools operate. It may be a less spectacular showdown than the laser war on Smith's wall, but it's one with dramatic implications for Tennessee's students and parents.

Behind the Curve

Bill Stegall realized just how far behind the charter school curve Tennessee is when he went to Nashville three weeks ago. At a conference of the American Association of Education Professionals, the former Knoxville school teacher heard tales of how public education is being reshaped in California, Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and a dozen other states. He lunched with legislators from Florida, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota, and talked about ways to give parents and teachers more control over what schools do and how they do it.

Stegall, who taught history at Austin-East High School for five years, found it fascinating. Although he now works for an employee benefit company, he's spent the past two years exploring ways to start an alternative school in inner-city Knoxville. But he couldn't help noticing that, at the Vanderbilt University conference, in the backyard of the Volunteer State's seat of power, there were precious few local voices.

"People from the charter school movement all over the country were there, and they brought back glowing reports on how charter schools are working. What was unfortunate is that there weren't enough people there from Tennessee," says Stegall, who taught history at Austin-East High School for five years.

Charter schools are, in a word, hot. Since Minnesota passed the country's first charter school law in 1991, more than 500 schools have opened coast to coast, with another 200 or so ready to open this fall. President Bill Clinton has embraced them, exhorting states to pass charter legislation and even providing federal start-up money to some schools. They attract an odd coalition of supporters, liberal and conservative reformers who agree on little other than the need for new models of public education. All of which makes defining them a little tricky.

In general, charter schools are independent academies that receive the same government funding as regular schools but are otherwise free of most public school restrictions. Although they vary widely from state to state, they're usually organized by groups of teachers and parents who are responsible for setting curriculum, structuring the school calendar, and even making personnel decisions. Enrollment is strictly voluntary--students choose to attend the schools rather than being automatically zoned to them. The schools can either be part of an existing school system or stand on their own. As public schools, they cannot choose which students to admit or teach religion.

They operate under "charters," 3- to 5-year contracts with local school boards or state education departments. A review agency appointed by the state generally evaluates the schools annually. Those that show strong gains in student performance and parent and faculty satisfaction can have their charters renewed. Schools that don't perform well may simply expire at the end of their charter.

The idea first caught on in the Midwest and Western U.S., but Southern states have joined the parade in recent years. Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas all have some form of charter laws.

Tennessee could be next. Dick Ray, chairman of the State Board of Education, which sets statewide educational policy, says charter schools are finally on the political radar here. A charter school bill passed the state Senate last year before being postponed by the House of Representatives. The bill simply calls for the State Board of Education to draw up rules by which charter schools can be formed and governed. Several factions--including legislators, the TSBA, and the TEA--are negotiating to try to pass some form of the legislation next spring.

But it might not be the kind of charter school law that charter supporters want. Charter bills have caused strife in most states that have passed them, usually between a few key factions: charter proponents, usually a combination of grassroots activists and legislators or governors; local school boards; and teachers' unions. Charter proponents usually push for as much freedom as possible for the schools, while school boards fight to maintain a degree of control over them. Teachers' groups fret about the possible violations of teachers' rights if schools have full authority to hire and fire their own faculty.

Ray acknowledges he doesn't know what shape the Tennessee State Board of Education's proposed charter rules will take.

"I'm not normally a waffler, but I will tell you there are so many political forces on this one, it's just a dog's breakfast," the Maryville resident says. "I think we're in a position in two or three months to make a decision."

Charter proponents warn that a law that limits charter schools' autonomy and ability to experiment will be worthless.

"The worst thing that can happen is we pass weak legislation," Stegall says, sitting on the back porch of his West Knoxville home. "It would be worse than no legislation at all."

Who's in Charge?

If other states' experiences are any indication, a "weak" law may be exactly what Tennessee is headed for.

In general, "strong" laws let anyone--teachers, parents, business groups, universities--apply for a charter and have several options for where to obtain one (local school boards, state education departments, appeals boards if an application is rejected). They also give the schools control over both their finances and personnel decisions.

"Weak" laws keep more power in the hands of local school boards, giving them the power to approve or reject all charters and a degree of oversight of charter schools' operations.

Not surprisingly, that's the type of law favored by the TSBA, which is backing the current proposed legislation. The group believes local board control is the only way to keep the schools accountable and to make sure public funds aren't diverted to private or religious schools.

"We think that is at the heart of our legislation," says George Nerren, TSBA's deputy director. "If there is merit in having charter schools, as independent public schools, [they] must answer to the local school board."

It was after discussions with Nerren that state Sen. Jeff Miller, R-Cleveland, proposed a charter school bill last spring.

"I'm interested in education, and I was looking at ways to increase parental involvement," Miller says. "In areas where charter schools are allowed, I think it will increase parent involvement; I think it might be able to address certain needs that are slipping through the cracks."

Although Miller's bill artfully sidesteps the question of what kind of charter schools to allow--leaving that up to the state board's recommendations--he says he personally "would come down somewhere in the middle, because I do want to make sure our local school boards are still involved and they have a degree of oversight over the charter schools...but I feel at the same time that if you choke the schools down too much, you'll set them up for failure."

The bill passed the Senate easily on a 21-10 vote, but it ran into trouble in the House, in the form of the TEA. Jerry Winters, TEA's chief lobbyist, says the teachers' group has serious concerns about the bill.

"The legislation that has passed the Senate is far too broad for our liking," Winters says. "It has no real definition of what it's talking about."

With TEA's influence, the bill was put on hold by the House's K-12 education subcommittee. But Winters says TEA is not opposed to charter schools on principle and plans to talk to Miller to address its concerns.

"We are not trying to kill the charter school movement in Tennessee," he says, pointing out that the National Education Association--TEA's parent group--has started several charter schools of its own.

But charter advocates are wary of the education establishment, which they suspect is more concerned with protecting its turf than improving its schools. John Stone, an ETSU education professor and sharp critic of public school bureaucracy, says school board and teachers' groups nationwide have moved to co-opt the charter movement with watered-down laws. He's skeptical of any bill passed with the sanction of TSBA and TEA.

"I would say that it's worse than a waste of time," he says. "It amounts to a deception. It looks like charter schools, it has the name of charter schools, but it's there to build more of the same [schools]."

Richard Wisniewski, former dean of the University of Tennessee's College of Education and director of UT's Institute for Educational Innovation, is less harsh. Although he's a strong charter supporter, he's sympathetic to school boards wanting to make sure the schools are held accountable. But he also fears the effect of too much regulation.

"A charter school that's hamstrung by too many rules or provisions is not going to be too different from what we now have," he says.

Charter supporters also say the easier it is to start a charter school, the more schools get started, a claim borne out by a study in the education magazine Phi Delta Kappan. As of December 1995, the study found, the six states with the strongest charter laws had a combined 222 charter schools; the six states with the weakest laws had just 14.

The Case for Reform

Two voices are so far notably missing from the discussion. One is that of Gov. Don Sundquist. While governors--both Democrats and Republicans--have been at the forefront of the charter movement in many states, Sundquist has been mum on the issue. A call to his office nets only a referral to his education commissioner, Jane Walters. Walters, through a spokeswoman, says, "My general philosophy is to favor the concept of charter schools, but I am not convinced I have enough solid information to make a decisive comment." She promises to send a representative to a national conference on charter schools this fall.

The more significant absence in the Tennessee debate is any organized pro-charter movement, the kind of coalition of legislators, business groups, and grassroots activists that has ushered in charter legislation in other states. Stegall, who was disappointed in his efforts to connect with other reformers at the Vanderbilt conference, thinks that's mostly due to a lack of information.

"I think just the idea of charter schools hasn't been disseminated enough that people are aware of what's really happening," he says.

Stegall is not a wholesale critic of public schools. But his years at Austin-East, an inner-city school that usually ranks at the bottom of county academic statistics, convinced him the system is failing on some levels.

"Public education seems to be working for middle-class kids," he says. "Where it's obviously not working is for inner-city youth. That's inescapable. The test scores back that up...[But] at Austin-East, I think some of the most talented, dedicated people in the world teach there. So why isn't it working?"

The answer, he believes, is in the intransigence of the public school bureaucracy, its inability to meet the individual needs of students. He notes that when he worked in Memphis as a counselor to at-risk kids, if one treatment plan wasn't working for a child, he'd immediately try a different tactic. Public schools, he argues, don't do that, forcing everyone through the same basic approach to learning.

"This is a no-brainer," he says. "If 'A' doesn't work, you try 'B.' What they've done is they've tried 'A' now for 50 years, and it's not working. And nothing's changing...They just spent $18 million on [a renovation of] Austin-East High School. We would be better off if they had taken that money and put it in a hole in the ground and lit it on fire and danced around it, because TCAP scores are not going to change. Because it's not money they lack--it's an educational vision. If you had 150 charter schools in Tennessee like they do in Arizona, what you'd have...[is] 150 individual laboratories trying to explore ways that would work. And if one of them hits upon a way that works, that message will spread."

Umoja Abdul-Ahad thinks he knows one of those ways. A community activist who turned some heads when he started a large recycling program in Knoxville's public housing developments, Abdul-Ahad approached the Knox County school board last year about opening a new school to serve students who had dropped out or were failing. He got a chilly reception from school officials, but he hasn't given up.

"We're not saying there aren't any kids excelling in public schools," he says, lounging under a tree on the campus of Knoxville College, across the street from the red brick public housing of College Homes. "We're just saying that we could provide the ones who aren't in school presently a way to see education, to hunger for it, to really reach out for it and grab it...Solutions can be found. We don't have to keep going through this prolonged period of agony."

Among his ideas: start classes early, at 5 or 6 a.m., and spend half the day in the classroom and half of it in a work environment; take extended school trips all over the country; make parents integral to the operation of the school.

Abdul-Ahad says he's talked with teachers and parents about his ideas and found them receptive. He's optimistic that as word about charter schools spreads, more people will join in pressuring legislators for action.

"The people making the decisions are politicians," he says. "And we know how to vote. We know how to run people for office. So it's over, the foolishness in terms of trying to keep people from fulfilling their own aspirations, it's over."

One That Works

A model of what Stegall, Abdul-Ahad, and others are talking about is within an easy drive of Knoxville, in Tennessee's northeast corner. University School is as close as Tennessee comes to a charter school, and it gives some idea of how the concept works. Established 86 years ago as a training ground for student teachers at ETSU, it has evolved into a unique education laboratory. It has about 530 students in grades K-12, all housed in a quaint three-story brick building at the edge of ETSU's campus. Enrollment is open to any students in Washington County, although they must provide their own transportation. Since class sizes are strictly limited, students are chosen via lottery. For years, it was thought of as a school for the children of ETSU faculty, but principal Smith says that has changed. Although it still tends to attract children of professionals, Smith says the population has grown increasingly diverse, economically and racially.

"They're people who value education," says Smith, 47, an articulate educator who came to East Tennessee after four years as a professor at Indiana State University. "They're a very supportive, involved, and demanding parent group. For one reason or another, they perceive that this is where they want their kids to be. And I would say most of those people perceive that this is a more rigorous academic preparation than they would get in some of the public schools."

The perception is undoubtedly helped by the school's history, but it also has to do with its willingness to innovate. For example, the high school English faculty has teamed up so that each student has each teacher for one quarter of the year, rather than having one teacher year-round. That way, Smith says, the teachers can focus on their areas of specialty, and students are exposed to more than one perspective. The school also made a major shift last year, changing to a year-round calendar that shortens summer vacation but adds three-week breaks after each quarter. In most public schools, those decisions would have to be studied and approved by several levels of red-tape administration.

"I think I'm in a position to really support my teachers in risk-taking," says Smith, who was a teacher and administrator in South Carolina public schools for 15 years before earning his doctorate. "There are times in public schools when you're asking your teachers to do things that you may not necessarily agree with. And I don't find myself in that position too often...We have a lot of autonomy, and the teachers value that."

So do the parents. Kris Bowers, president of the school's PTSA, says she enrolled her two children at University School because of its small size. She has found the school friendly and open--parents are involved in everything from developing curriculum to hiring staff.

"We have more parental interest in the school, because it's a matter of choice [to go there], a decision within the family," Bowers says.

Charter advocates say charter schools have the same effect, turning parents from passive to active participants in education.

Hidden Agendas?

But many within public education mistrust the motives behind charter schools, as well as their potential results.

The most common theme among skeptics is that charter schools are a more politically palatable version of school vouchers, a concept favored by conservative and religious groups that would give parents public funds to send their children to private or parochial schools.

"I worry about the motivation and the reasoning behind people who want to start [charter schools]," says Diane Jablonski, the policy wonk of the Knox County school board. "I think there's a hidden agenda there, and I'm not really into financing hidden agendas."

The perception is furthered by the fact that many charter supporters on the conservative end of the political spectrum also favor vouchers.

"While vouchers and charter schools are separate issues, zealots, especially on the voucher side, have linked them so effectively that keeping them separate is blowing into the wind," laments Wisniewski, a strong opponent of vouchers.

But Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow with the conservative Washington, D.C. think tank the Hudson Institute and a national leader in the charter movement, says many voucher advocates actually oppose charter schools because they keep funding in the public system.

"Some people think charters are the antidote to vouchers," Finn says. "You give people enough choices and options in the public school system, which is what charter schools are, and the appetite for vouchers diminishes."

Public school officials say they already provide choices and innovation. Allen Morgan, superintendent of Knox County schools, says public education already constantly reinvents itself.

"I can only speak for what's happening locally," he says, "but we have principals all over this system who are doing new and innovative things based on research...I don't think it's fair to say that all these people out here who want to start a charter school have a [corner] on new and innovative ideas."

Knox County, for example, recently changed all of its high schools to "block scheduling," where students take 90-minute classes on a half-year schedule. It also has a magnet program operating at several inner-city schools, offering a range of intensive arts and science courses. Other local school systems, including Maryville and Oak Ridge, are experimenting with year-round school calendars, all without benefit of charter schools.

"I don't follow the argument that we're so slow to change," Jablonski says. "There's an awful lot of innovative-type teaching going on in a lot of our schools."

She sees charter schools as just another education buzz-word, like the now-infamous "open classrooms" of the 1970s.

"I think it's viewed as education reform by a lot of people who don't have the slightest idea what they're talking about," she says.

Mike Dalton, superintendent of Maryville City Schools, says his system is already adopting some of the elements of charter schools--less centralized decision-making, more experimentation. He sees charters as an unproven commodity.

"Without some sort of control and some way to monitor it, it seems like we would make a group of kids guinea pigs for someone else's idea of what they should do," he says. "If it's really different from what we're doing, how would we know it would work? And if it's not really different from what we're doing, why would we want to do it?"

Uncertain Future

It's too early to say whether charter schools as a whole are working. Few have been operating for more than a couple of years, and the schools by definition vary so much that sorting out successes from failures will take some time.

Detractors point to examples like the Marcus Garvey School in Washington, D.C., an "Afro-centric" charter school that has come under fire both for its curriculum and for its administrative tactics (one newspaper reporter claimed she was assaulted by the principal and students when she showed up for an interview).

But charter proponents, while acknowledging some missteps are inevitable, say overall indications are encouraging. The Hudson Institute just issued a study that shows high levels of enthusiasm among teachers, students, and parents involved in charter schools. The report, "Charter Schools in Action," is the most comprehensive survey of the charter movement to date.

"We're very bullish," Finn says. "The people in charter schools are extremely enthusiastic and believe they're learning more" than they would in regular schools.

The report also answers another fear--that charter schools will drain the public schools of top students and turn into elite academies. In fact, Finn says, the schools have become safety valves for students struggling in traditional settings. Many states reinforce this function by requiring a certain percentage of charter schools to specifically target disadvantaged students. The most interesting finding is that 11 to 12 percent of the students in the Hudson Institute's database had transferred from private rather than public schools.

"If I were a private school head, I might be more worried about charter schools than if I were a public school head," Finn says.

He admits actual academic data--test scores and such--is "sketchy," but says initial reports from a few states are encouraging.

Still, Finn says the future of the charter movement is a little hazy. Although he expects the number of schools and states to grow, charter schools still face a few major obstacles. One is capital funding--the schools receive operating funds from the state and local school boards, but they generally don't get any money to acquire or maintain buildings. Many have had to launch their own fund-raising campaigns to pay for facilities, which has limited the number of truly independent schools (charter schools that remain within an established school system usually get maintenance taken care of by the school board).

The bigger question is what kind of longterm effect the schools will have on public education as a whole.

"The charter movement is at an intersection," Finn says. "It can remain an essentially marginal exit for a relatively small number of kids who have generally failed to thrive in public schools. The other track would turn charter schools into a major education alternative for millions of kids, and I don't know...which track the movement is going to follow."

In Tennessee, of course, the first question is whether there will be charter schools at all.

Miller's bill was technically tabled until 1999 in the House, but observers expect it to resurface during the 1998 legislative session. What form it eventually takes will have a lot to do with how much public discussion it elicits. Among other things, the issue seems ripe for use in next year's gubernatorial campaign, either by Sundquist or whoever runs against him.

For the moment, Ray says, nobody outside the Nashville power corridors is making any noise about it.

"I can truthfully tell you I have never had a single soul ask me, 'Why don't we have a charter school?'" he says. "I'm sure it's out there, but I have not heard it."

And he probably won't, Finn says, if the state passes weak legislation.

"It takes somebody that's not self-interested, that's not fundamentally wedded to the current system, to kind of make this their cause," Finn says. "But if you had a strong charter law, I have no doubt you'd have parents and teachers and community groups coming out of the woodwork to start charter schools."