Sunday, March 29, 2009

State teachers union lies as usual: that's why charter public schools need more access to students for better use of your tax dollars

The Memphis Commercial-Appeal produced a good story today on the charter school movement in Tennessee and the obstacles faced by incredibly ignorant and selfish educators such as the president of the state teachers union.

Legislation will first be considered in the state Senate and will pass easily thanks to its sponsorship by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. The problem has always been in the state House subcommittee, where the education bureaucracy such as TEA dictates policy that first ensures the jobs of its members, not the proper education of Tennessee's children.

And those members have the ear and votes of black Democratic lawmakers from Memphis, who line up for the bureaucracy against the children.

In the story below, the state teachers union, the Tennessee Education Association, says that charter public schools "cherry pick" the best students and most involved parents from traditional public schools.

That is an incredible lie, even for the TEA.

At charter public schools such as where I volunteer at Smithson Craighead Academy in Nashville, we take the kids that the TEA's members have failed to properly educate in traditional public schools. These human beings usually are black, poor children. And their parents are not educated enough to help them with homework. They, too, were failed by TEA members.

The TEA believes your tax dollars for the education of its children belong to it first, to make sure its members keep their jobs and keep getting higher salaries -- while failing to educate all these young people.

Consider if you could do the same on your job -- fail its primary objective but still keep it and even get paid more. You can't. So why do we allow our tax dollars to be used this way then?

President Obama has made charter public schools the centerpiece of his education agenda. So how can black, Memphis lawmakers oppose a black president on this issue? That's where the TEA and its campaign contributions come in. But the data is there that show charter public schools work. And there is even one located across from the White House.

Your support of charter school legislation this session, however, can promote the kind of competition that will make the education bureaucracy more accountable. At Smithson Craighead, we believe you as taxpayers are already paying enough for public education.

Please, just give us access to more students to show you that the money is there to properly educate the least of our children. Make the TEA and its members finally work for your dollars and educate these children properly or lose them. That's fair.

Below is the Commercial-Appeal story:

By Jane Roberts (Contact), Memphis Commercial Appeal
Sunday, March 29, 2009

Catch Roblin Webb on a busy day and her "parent line" cell phone crawls in a near-constant vibration across her desk.

The log of callers is the same day after day: parents who've heard one way or another about Freedom Preparatory Academy and want their kids in.

Mostly, they're calling from Whitehaven or Westwood or Walker Homes, where many of the public schools aren't making the grade and where Webb's been pounding the streets for a month now, playing a numbers game to fill 108 sixth-grade slots, the first class in the 6-12 college-prep charter she's approved to open this fall.

"We see kids out riding their bikes and I say, 'How old are you? What grade are you in?'" Webb says, laughing at the absurdity.

"We actually got two applications that way. The kids' mother came out and filled them out right there."

Tennessee has some of the most restrictive rules in the nation on who may attend charter schools. Under the law re-approved last year, only students already in a charter school, assigned to a failing school or who are failing themselves are eligible.

If you are Webb -- whose proposal sailed through a 500-page application process and was awarded a $250,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation -- it means you have to find the parents of those students any way you can: in front of the grocery store, in community sessions or going door to door.

"We really formed our business plan based on the law," said Webb, who is a law school graduate, a member of the charter school movement called Building Excellent Schools and is single with no children.

"Of the 30 failing schools in the Memphis district, 20 percent are in the Westwood/Whitehaven area. The majority are middle and high schools."

Webb estimates 720 fifth-graders in the neighborhoods are eligible for Freedom Prep, a charter based on a national model of preparing low-achieving students to succeed in college.

A host of advocates, including local charter school operators, say the rules cripple children's chances, particularly in Memphis, which has both the largest number of failing schools and the largest population of at-risk children, based on the number receiving free or reduced school lunches.

"The most common thing we run into are parents that would like to come to a charter, but they can't because they have the wrong address," said Matt Throckmorton, head of the Tennessee Charter School Association.

"In order for our schools to have the student population it takes to run a school, we have to go to great efforts to recruit, which means going door-to-door, going to malls and grocery stores."

For leaders starting schools, it's time better spent hiring teachers, developing lesson plans and preparing data-driven instruction, he said.

Since charters were introduced in Minnesota in 1992, 41 states have passed legislation permitting them; 38 allow open enrollment in some form.

Charters are free, public schools given freedoms others are not. The teachers are not union members. The school day and year often run longer. Administrators can take creative license with curriculum.

But they must adhere to the goals of their charter. And if the school fails state exams two years in a row, it is shut down. Yo! Academy here lost its charter in 2007.

Webb and others say they want that level of accountability. What stymies the work is the restriction on who may attend.

Tennessee, like 19 other states, also caps the number of charters it authorizes.

In Memphis, with more charters than any city in the state, the cap is set at 20, based on population.

Memphis already has 19, including Soulsville, a college prep academy for students who excel in music, a handful of other career-specific middle and elementary academies, and four schools Memphis City Schools is opening for high school students two years over age for grade.

Unless the law changes this session, only one of the seven or eight applications in the works now will be approved.

Michael Whaley, completing a residency at K-8 charter in Brooklyn, N.Y., is submitting an application.

"We're confidently moving forward and fully expect to be chartered," he said.

As a Teach for America teacher at Getwell Elementary in 2006, "my eyes were opened to the scope of the problem," said Whaley, who is also with Building Excellent Schools.

"If students are not proficient readers by third grade, they're unlikely to graduate from high school."

Opponents say charter schools cherry-pick the most talented students with the most involved parents, weakening an already failing public school.

"I believe the legislature was very wise in putting a cap on the number and who can attend," said Earl Wiman, president of the 55,000-member Tennessee Education Association, including 7,000 Memphis teachers.

"The reason is because we truly do not have any substantial amount of research that says charters are better than public schools when you account for the fact that charters are essentially choosing the children they take."

According to research prepared by Hyde Family Foundations based on state test data, charter schools in Tennessee last year outpaced public school districts in the percentage of at-risk students scoring proficient and advanced in math and reading.

In math, 97.3 percent of students at Star Academy in Frayser scored proficient or advanced in math compared to 83.3 percent in the City Schools.

Wiman, principal for 15 years in "a high-poverty" school in Jackson, Tenn., winces when people assume children from poor homes are automatically risks for academic failure.

"The truly at-risk do not have parents involved in their lives," he said. "It's an enormous mistake in this state to think just because a child is getting free or reduced lunch means they are at risk."

Webb, supplied free office space by the Hyde Foundation, became an ardent supporter of charters when she volunteered to coach the Middle College High School mock trial team.

"They were not prepared to go to college because their ACT scores were 16 and 17," she said.

"But they had talent. It broke my heart that they wouldn't be attorneys because they couldn't get in college."

The civil rights lawyer quit law and got involved in school reform, first New Leaders for New Schools, then Building Excellent Schools, which recruits talented teachers and nonteachers to start charter schools from the ground up.

"I tell my parents their children are going to get in trouble a lot at first because our rules are very strong. We sweat every little thing they do. You've got to understand that and work with me. We are going to call you all the time."

Where the charter schools are in Tennessee

Nashville: KIPP Nashville, LEAD, Smithson Craighead

Memphis: Circles of Success, City University, Promise Academy, Star Academy, Soulsville, Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, Memphis Academy of Health Sciences (middle), Memphis Academy of Health Sciences (high), Memphis Business Academy (middle), Memphis Business Academy (high), Southern Avenue Charter School, Power Center Academy and KIPP Diamond

Approved for August start

Nashville: Smithson Craighead (middle), Global Academy

Memphis: Freedom Prep, City University Boys

Chattanooga: Ivy Academy, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy

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