Tennessee Voices: Charters must reflect high standards

Published by The Tennessean

During my nearly 30-year career as an executive with Tractor Supply Co., our business responded to opportunity and demand by adding hundreds of new retail stores across the country.

Because we had a quality product backed by an outstanding team, most of those stores became wildly successful and contributed to the strong performance of the company. But occasionally we had a store that did not perform, and when we did, we simply closed it.

Any closing was both a disappointment and a learning experience. We studied the reasons for failure and learned how to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Based on that long-term learning, Tractor Supply seldom, if ever, closes a store today.

Businesses become stronger organizations through cycles of new idea experimentation, which often lead to success and sometimes failure. That is the process of strengthening. Today, I see similarities in the experiences of successful business organizations and what is happening in Nashville’s public school system.

Nashville has a young, but very successful charter school environment. An emphasis on quality leaders, teachers and schools is merging with increasing parental demand for school choice, and the result is a large number of high-performing public charters, with more on the way.

Just like with my business, there have also been disappointments: A handful of Davidson County charter schools, most recently Boys Prep and Drexel Academy, will close for failing to meet the performance standards in their contracts with Metro Nashville Public Schools.

These closings are unfortunate for parents, but they are clearly the responsible thing to do. Schools that chronically fail to meet the needs of their students should be closed. It allows parents and families to more expeditiously guide their children to better schools.

In Tennessee, MNPS and other local school districts grant charter schools autonomy to develop their own plans for academic programs, staffing and budgeting. In exchange, charter schools are held to appropriately demanding performance standards.

Those performance requirements are very well defined. Charter schools operate on a performance contract basis with local districts. When the schools do not measure up to the pledge in the contract, the district has the right to — and should — revoke the charter and close the school. The other trigger for closing a charter school is when it lands in the bottom 5 percent of performance in the state.

In addition to it being the right thing to do, closing underperforming charters is good for the health of the overall education system.
Strong accountability standards are a significant reason why Nashville’s charter movement is so successful. Yes, some schools have closed, but there can be no quarrel with the quality and performance of the vast majority of Nashville’s charter schools.

Accountability for charters is good policy, so I will argue that MNPS should apply the same or similar accountability framework to district schools. The district’s adoption of the Academic Performance Framework (APF) last year is a step in the right direction. The APF gives schools a composite rating on a host of key performance indicators and has started to force difficult conversations about chronically underperforming schools. Schools that receive the lowest rating on the APF for three consecutive years can face closing or turnaround by a charter operator.

Chronically underperforming public schools, traditional or charter, should not be allowed to continue to operate without consequence. A generation of students is counting on us to have the moral courage to demand excellence in public education.

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