A legislative proposal that could grow enrollment in Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools in Memphis and Nashville would accommodate charter school organizations seeking to recruit students from outside their residential zones.

Rep. Harry McCormick (R-Chattanooga) and Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville) have filed bills on behalf of the state Department of Education to allow out-of-zone students to comprise up to 25 percent of students in any school operated through the state’s Achievement School District (ASD). Currently, only students zoned to those schools can attend schools in the ASD – regardless of available seats — even though many schools in the district are under capacity.

The ASD oversees schools that are among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state – currently 22 schools in Memphis and one in Nashville. Most are run by nonprofit charter organizations authorized by the ASD.

Charter operators would welcome an avenue for increasing enrollments. “The larger issue is that these schools were already drastically under-enrolled [before state takeover],” said Greg Thompson, CEO of the Tennessee Charter Center, a non-profit organization promoting the state’s charter sector.

However, opponents of charter schools say the bill could harm traditional public schools, siphoning off both students and funding.

“The need for such a bill indicates that the ASD is unable to meet its goal of turning around low-performing schools without a change in student population, and it also indicates that parents are not ‘voting with their feet’ to attend these charter schools,” said Amy Frogge, a board member for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and a vocal critic of charter schools and the ASD.

Frogge voiced concern that schools in the ASD will recruit the highest-achieving students from nearby neighborhoods, which could “burden traditional schools with larger populations of more challenging and costly-to-educate students,” she responded in an email to Chalkbeat.

A similar bill was sponsored last year by Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis) and Sen. Delores Gresham (R-Somerville), passing the Senate before dying in the House Finance Committee.

In addition to five Memphis schools managed by the ASD, Tennessee has 11 nonprofit charter organizations operating schools in Memphis and Nashville through the ASD, with three more charter groups  joining its ranks in 2015-16.

At least one charter operator, Rocketship Education based in Redwood City, Calif., has decided against opening a school with the ASD for the time being, in part because of unpredictable enrollment. Currently, Rocketship operates a school authorized by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, preferring the Nashville district’s flexibility on enrollment, although Rocketship spokesman Shaka Mitchell said an ASD school might be in the network’s future, regardless of whether the bill passes.

Solid and predictable enrollments are needed for charter schools to offer a full and robust curriculum, operators say. “We need predictability to offer the instructional model we’re proud of,” said Mitchell, adding that Rocketship also aims to serve the highest number of students possible.

Operators of charter schools in Memphis agree.

“Right now, we’re proponents of school choice and we would like for students who want to come to [our schools in Memphis] to have that opportunity,” said Megan Quaile, chief growth officer for Los Angeles-based Green Dot Public Schools, which manages Fairley High School and is taking over Wooddale Middle School in the fall.

She said Fairley’s enrollment of 650 students is average for a Green Dot high school, but that the building is large enough to accommodate many more.

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.

The Achievement School District also would be impacted by another bill filed in the legislature if it becomes law. Sponsored by Sen. Reginald Tate (D-Memphis), vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, the bill would require ASD schools to hire any teachers with a high rating on Tennessee’s teacher evaluation.

Clarification: An earlier version of this article said Rocketship will only open a school with the ASD if HB79 passes. Future Rocketship schools with the ASD are not contingent on enrollment policies.