Tennessee Charter School History

Michael StarTennessee enacted its charter school law in 2002. The law allowed for only local school boards to serve as authorizing entities, and restricted charters to the two large urban areas, Memphis and Nashville. Additionally, it put significant restrictions on enrollment, limiting charter access only to students who were deemed as failing, attending a failing school, or eligible for free or reduced priced lunch.

In 2009 the legislature improved the charter law by partially lifting the state’s cap, expanding the types of students eligible to attend charter schools, and providing a funding mechanism to support charter facilities costs. In 2010, as part of the Tennessee’s Race to the Top grant, the Achievement School District (ASD) was created, which carried with it charter authorizing authority. In 2011, the law was changed again to eliminate enrollment restrictions and caps.  Charter schools are now open to all students and are not limited by caps.

Due to policy restrictions, charter growth was slow up until recent years. In 2009-10 there were 18 charter schools serving 5,000 students. However, recent changes to the law in 2009 and the addition of the State’s Achievement School District in 2010 have accelerated charter growth significantly. In 2012-13, there are 40 charter schools in operation serving nearly 11,700 students.

The slow growth of the charter school movement has enabled a high-quality environment to thrive. Results from the 2012-13 Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) show nine charter schools receiving the designation of Reward School. This equates to nearly one-fourth of eligible charter schools (those with two or more years of data) named as Reward Schools. Though charter schools are seeing positive academic results, there is still a significant need for more high quality schools. In Memphis, 69 schools fall in the bottom 5% of schools in the state and data published by Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) estimates that less than one of every five students is receiving a high-quality education.

Education reforms in Tennessee have not been solely focused around charter school policy. Winning Race-to-the-Top in 2010 provided $502 million to Tennessee’s public schools reform efforts. The results of these efforts include a new teacher and administrator evaluation system, extensive common core implementation preparation, and a number of other school improvement and accountability reforms. These additional reform efforts, added to the significant commitment to expanding charter school options, have created an environment where charter schools can succeed.