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Tennessee has a lot to be proud of in our work to ensure that public education in the “Volunteer State” delivers academic progress for students from kindergarten through career.

We have seen significant improvement on the Nation’s Report Card over the last decade. Tennessee led the nation in efforts to remove financial barriers to postsecondary education and remained committed to a core set of education policy and practices that are student-centered and grounded in research and best practice. 

One of the areas that makes Tennessee’s education improvement efforts unique is the strength of our charter school sector.

Today, Tennessee has 115 public charter schools serving just over 44,000 students — with nearly 92 percent of those students being students of color. Parent’s interest in and their demand for high-quality public charter schools continues to grow — especially amidst the difficulties caused by COVID-19.

Since 2018, charter enrollment in the state has increased 12.6 percent while district-run school enrollment in the same districts decreased.  

Strong public policy and leadership in Tennessee

Three things were needed to establish our strong and thriving charter school sector: a core policy foundation, committed and bipartisan champions and outstanding school leaders. 

First, a strong policy core provides the foundation for educational improvement for every student — regardless of the type of school.  

Over the past 12 years, Tennessee has made important policy changes that have had positive impacts on student success: higher academic standards, a commitment to student assessment, meaningful school improvement and accountability, a multi-measure teacher evaluation system that provides regularly detailed feedback to educators, a commitment to research-based literacy practices in both K-12 schools and teacher preparation programs connected to establish a higher quality curriculum. 

These foundational elements matter in every public school — charter and traditional. Commitment to these policies require champions who will prioritize defending them over time and across state leadership transitions, providing the time needed for strong and continued implementation. Key policymakers and champions have played a leadership role across the political spectrum in our state.

At the state level, there has been more than 20 years of bipartisan gubernatorial and legislative support for great charter schools in Tennessee.  Important charter sector growth started under former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, continued under former Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and is now championed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee. 

This has led to the state’s creation of a public charter schools commission in 2019 and the investment of $24 million in the 2021-22 state budget for charter school facilities that will make a big difference.  

Perhaps most importantly are the thousands of hard-working and inspiring charter school educators working to serve our students every day. In many cases with the help and support of committed, place-based philanthropic partners who have championed and invested in the growth and success of great schools. 

More to do to serve students 

While there is a lot to be proud of and learn from, there are also huge opportunities for future growth. We’re still not where we need to be for all students, and particularly for students of color and low-income students. 

Due to pandemic losses, the achievement gap between Black and White students in third-grade reading has widened; Black students are now closer to one-third the proficiency level of White students.

Since fall of 2019, community college enrollment has declined 19.7 percent with the steepest drops for Black students.  For low-income students enrolled in Tennessee high schools, data shows that only one in ten will go on to earn a postsecondary degree or credential. 

This means we must do everything we can to accelerate and replicate where we are serving students well.  

The fuel for future growth 

To fuel future public charter school growth, we need to strengthen the basics: facilities, authorizing and funding.

We also need new models that focus on preparing all students for a fulfilling life and good-paying job. 

Additional investment at the state and local level is needed to support the physical infrastructure schools need to serve students and grow. Our state school funding model needs an overhaul so that each school is getting what it needs to serve each individual student well. 

To serve more students well, we have to jumpstart our efforts to build a pipeline of future charter leaders and educators. We also need to continue to support and empower parent voices in all that we do.

Moving forward the Tennessee way 

In many ways, we have demonstrated to the nation how to launch and grow a successful public charter school sector.  

Even prior to the pandemic, charter schools in Tennessee’s two largest school districts had a higher percentage of schools meeting or exceeding academic growth expectations than their district-run counterparts.  

Now we must accelerate the opportunities for high-performing schools to grow and serve more students and families. It’s more important now than ever before. Students and families are counting on us.   

We know what’s working. We just need to do more of it. That’s the Tennessee Way. 

David Mansouri is president and CEO of SCORE.

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