Guest Post: Chartered Course for Tennessee’s Kids

July 25, 2014 10:51AM

When is the last time you waited in line for 45 minutes? A concert? The DMV? If you’re a parent in Memphis, it’s possible that your answer is, “for a charter school.” Last year, 800 Memphis parents waited in long lines for the Tennessee Charter School Association enrollment fair. Parent demand for alternative schooling options is high, and charter schools are narrowing the gap between parent demand and supply of schools. In fact, Shelby County is the first district in the state where charters will have at least 10 percent market share of schools. This comes as little surprise given that the charter sector has increased its market share nationwide faster than any other school type. The Friedman Foundation recently surveyed Tennesseans and asked, “if it were your decision and you could select any type of school, what type of school would you select in order to obtain the best education for your child?”

       Here’s what Tennessee families said they want…

1st chart from Friedman

                 …but here’s what they are getting as evidence by current enrollment patterns:

2nd chart from Friedman*Homeschool enrollment NA

Clearly, parents have a need for diverse school choice options that simply are not being met. Although the charter sector is doing a commendable job at closing that gap, it’s time for private schools to step up. The most viable way for this to be achieved is through a private school voucher program. Such a program would provide similar benefits to those of charter schools by offering children an education free at the point of delivery. It would also allow for new and unique educational models to develop that can better serve children’s needs. Most importantly, a private school voucher program would lower or remove private schools’ tuition barriers—making both charter and private schools an equally feasible option for families who have limited choices due to the cost of tuition. Unfortunately, many private schools are not quite yet in a position to grow in the same way charters have been able to do, and may want to consider looking to the charter sector for best practices. In a new Friedman Foundation report, “The Chartered Course: Can Private School Choice Proponents Learn from the Charter School Sector?,” Andy Smarick, of Bellwether Education Partners, maps such a course for private schools interested in scaling up and ensuring quality educational opportunities for students they serve. Although the charter sector is not the only source of best practices for private schools interested in expanding the supply and quality of their schools, it nonetheless provides a solid option. As Smarick’s report demonstrates, there are ways the private and charter sectors can work collaboratively—and successfully—to better serve more kids. Tennessee parents are rightfully demanding more high-quality options in both the private and public sector for their children’s education. Why not open the doors for more choice programs and encourage collaboration between the sectors to meet these growing needs of families who need it the most? Other states are taking this course; it’s time Tennessee does, too. – Stephanie Linn, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice