In just five years, Tennessee went from 29 charter schools and six charter management organizations (CMOs) serving 5,500 kids to 98 schools and 24 CMOs serving 29,000 students—while emphasizing the need to replicate high-performing and high-potential charters in underserved communities. How did Tennessee do it, and what lessons can other education leaders learn from this state?
As we document in Public Impact’s new report for the Charter School Growth Fund, Growing a High-Quality Charter Sector: Lessons from Tennessee, the state benefitted from the convergence of favorable policy conditions, political leadership, public-private grants, and an existing supply of local high-quality charter operators. That created an environment for the Tennessee Charter School Incubator and the Charter School Growth Fund to carry out unique philanthropically supported strategies focused on identifying and developing promising new school leaders and expanding high-performing CMOs in Memphis and Nashville. Though the state has too little data yet to fully judge the impact on student achievement, early academic results are promising, and the newest charter schools are predominantly run by organizations with a record of success.
The move toward more high-quality charter schools began with the state’s successful bid for Race to the Top money and accompanying legislative changes, plus the commitment to create a public-private fund to incubate new high-quality charter schools and scale up top CMOs. Additionally, the state had:
- Political champions for high-quality charter schools—two governors (one Democrat, one Republican) and the Nashville mayor among them;
- Local philanthropic support for charter school growth in Nashville and Memphis that helped attract national funding; and
- Several high-performing charter schools in Nashville and Memphis ready to be replicated.
Tennessee then pursued a multifaceted strategy focused on:
- Developing new charter school operators;
- Scaling up local, high-quality single-site schools into multi-school networks;
- Recruiting high-quality, national operators to expand in Tennessee; and
- Authorizing charter schools to turn around some of the state’s lowest-performing schools through the statewide turnaround Achievement School District.
To turn the strategy into reality, three groups took the lead:
- The Tennessee Charter School Incubator, which funded leadership training and school start-up support for 16 aspiring school leaders who collectively opened 15 new schools between 2012 and 2015.
- The CSGF Tennessee Fund supported the opening of new charter schools in Nashville and Memphis by local and national high-performing charter operators. When the CMOs that the fund supports finish their plans to grow, the fund will have supported 37 schools serving more than 20,000 students.
- The Achievement School District relied on authorizing charter operators to lead most of its school turnarounds. Established in 2011, the ASD has authorized 14 charter school organizations that collectively opened 21 charter schools by 2015–16, serving 8,000 students total, mostly in Memphis.
In addition, Memphis and Nashville funders have focused on the support needed to recruit and retain high-performing teachers, and the state continued to refine its policies to support the best charters and close the worst.
Get the details about Tennessee’s experience and takeaways, plus profiles of several CMOs, in Growing a High-Quality Charter Sector: Lessons from Tennessee, by Public Impact’s Juli Kim, Tim Field, and Elaine Hargrave.