Since 2009, SCORE has been committed to improving outcomes for all Tennessee students. One strategy to do that is through a high-quality public charter school sector.

Charter schools are public schools operating under an agreement, or “charter,” with an authorizing agency. Tennessee’s public charter schools offer an innovative educational opportunity for students and families, particularly those from economically disadvantaged and historically underserved backgrounds.  

Let’s dive into the specifics of Tennessee public charter schools and explore similarities and differences between them and other public schools.

Tennessee Public Charter Schools:
  • Are public schools, open to all students, and free to attend
  • Must enroll any student who applies, regardless of behavior, special need, or academic performance
  • Must meet the same academic standards and administer the same assessments as traditional public schools
  • Are operated by a nonprofit organization
  • Are required to use a lottery if demand exceeds available seats
  • Must employ licensed educators and Tennessee certified teachers
  • Are required by law to undergo an independent financial audit every year
  • Can be closed if the school fails to meet academic or financial expectations

In 2022, there were 114 charter schools in Tennessee. All were in the state’s largest metro areas — Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. Rutherford County is slated to open its first charter school this fall.

When charter students returned to the classroom for a full year in 2022 following the COVID-19 pandemic, they saw significant rebounds in performance across both English language arts (ELA) and math. This growth came after large drops in student performance during the height of the pandemic in the 2020-21 year when most public charter schools offered only remote instruction in accordance with district plans. Approximately 80 percent of Tennessee public charter schools met or exceeded student academic growth expectations in 2022. Student achievement scores in math and ELA grew at a high rate for students enrolled in Tennessee charter schools when compared with district school peers. Charter students grew 8 points in ELA and 6 points in math, compared to their noncharter peers who grew 4 points in ELA and remained flat in math.

Charter Schools Serve More Students From Historically Underserved Groups

Public charter schools in Tennessee serve more students from historically underserved groups — including Black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students — than their traditional public-school peers. About 87 percent of the students served by Tennessee charter schools identify as Black, Hispanic, or Native American, compared to 35 percent of their noncharter peers.

Additionally, in 2022, one out of every two students attending a Tennessee public charter school was economically disadvantaged. Public charters serve nearly triple the share of English learner students compared to traditional public schools in Tennessee.

Innovation Fosters Academic Growth

Innovative educational pathways facilitated by Tennessee’s public charter schools grant students and families, particularly those from economically disadvantaged and historically underserved backgrounds, the chance to attend high-performance schools that foster academic growth.

Nashville’s Purpose Preparatory Academy Charter School, for example, has been one of the top-performing elementary schools in Nashville and Tennessee since its founding in 2013. Nearly 95 percent of its students are Black. Purpose Prep offers a rigorous curriculum, high-quality instruction, and character development to prepare students for college. It ranked first in ELA and math growth among all of Metro Nashville Public Schools’ elementary schools in the 2021-22 TCAP results.

Purpose Prep’s two-teacher model provides two certified teachers for every core subject area. This model reflects a strategic decision to ensure the school has the instructional capacity to address student learning gaps and accelerate learning. It is just one example of the innovative models charters are using to advance student learning.

SCORE has created a comprehensive data set that includes spreadsheets, downloadable resources, and information about Tennessee public charter schools. For the most recent data — including enrollment, demographics, and performance — and spotlights of innovative practices at Tennessee’s top performing charter schools, visit our new resource page.

Emma McWeeney is SCORE’s director of charter initiatives.