Easing restrictions raises competition for students

By Jane Roberts, Memphis Commercial Appeal
May 28, 2011

Public school leaders here expect a fight over students as charter school operators prepare to promote themselves in more affluent parts of town.

Bills that eliminate the restrictions on who may attend charter schools passed in both houses of the Tennessee legislature last week, prompting some charter operators to predict lotteries may be necessary to limit enrollment. Others purchased school buses to compete.

“We have been locked in North Memphis. Now, our focus is going to be more along the lines of East Memphis and Midtown areas,” said Rev. Anthony Anderson, head of the Memphis Business Academy in Frayser. The charter school moved into a renovated Kmart last year after outgrowing its home in Faith United Methodist Church, 2450 Frayser Blvd.

Of MBA’s 125 openings for this fall, “25 to 30 percent of them will come from communities we have not served,” Anderson said.

One of the biggest benefits of drawing from different parts of town is the opportunity to diversify the student body, say charter operators.

Test scores and school culture often improve with diversity. And the new students, Anderson said, “don’t bring some of the same neighborhood gang associations.”

Memphis City Schools board member Dr. Jeff Warren says charter companies trying to recruit around “Snowden, Idlewild, Richland” and other popular city elementary schools are in for a surprise.

“Potential charters attempting to cream from our top schools are going to find the competition daunting,” he said.

Many local charters, including KIPP — whose mission is to serve predominantly poor families — have no plans to target new audiences.

“We will accept any child that wants to enroll but we are not making any effort to target other communities,” said Jamal McCall, head of KIPP Memphis.

Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering already draws from 31 ZIP codes.

Executive director Harold Wingood says the law change means all charters will have to promote themselves better in a community that still largely doesn’t know what charters are.

“The truth is, Memphis City Schools are getting better all the time. Families have a lot of options, and charters are just one.”

It is against state law for charter operators in Tennessee to administer tests as part of their recruitment process. Because they are public schools, they must take every student who applies and in the order they applied. If more apply than a charter can accommodate, the schools have to hold lotteries.

The issue that charters enroll selectively is so sensitive, charter operators refrain from using the word “recruit,” Anderson said.

“We are not going after families of students on honor rolls; we will not be creaming.” But he expects parents who see MBA’s advertising in Midtown will read “daily homework” as code for rigor and responsibility and will be interested.

“I think parents will take a look at us.”

School board member Martavius Jones believes charters will try to take the best students.

“If they are saying they are not going to do it, then Memphis charter operators would be doing the complete opposite of what is taking place in other states.”

The bills eliminating the eligibility restrictions were sponsored on behalf of Gov. Bill Haslam by Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, and Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis. Norris says charters offer teachers and administrators flexibility to turn around persistently low-performing schools.

Because the tax money for education follows the child, Norris is aware that enrollment exoduses will affect city school budgets.

When charters were sanctioned in Tennessee in 2002, they could serve only failing students or students in urban districts assigned to failing schools.

The law was amended in 2009 to include children who qualified for free or reduced lunch prices.

In poor cities, like Memphis, that change in eligibility doubled the number of children who could attend the charter schools.

Memphis has 22 charter schools; three more will open in the fall, enrolling a total of of 6,700 students or 6.5 percent of the city school population.

Even if charters do find a new constituency, they can’t enroll more students than their contracts with the city school board allow.

“Any new schools still have to go through our application process,” said Alfred Hall, chief of staff in the city schools.

“We have a well-structured, comprehensive, yet fair application process that has served as a model across the state. We’ll see where the applications fall based on their merits.”

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