Memphis Charter School Growth Ranks Nationally

By Bill Dries

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranks Memphis City Schools as having the ninth-highest growth rate for charter school enrollment in the country.

Malik Brown, 13, listens with his computer closed during a writing class at Power Center Academy. The school was recently named best charter school in Tennessee by SCORE.

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

The new charter school survey, the seventh annual by the organization, released Wednesday, Nov. 14, shows charter school enrollment in Memphis City Schools grew by more than 21 percent in the 2011-2012 school year compared to the previous school year. Charter schools serve 6,500 students in Memphis by the alliance figures, which is a 6 percent market share.

Clark County Schools in Nevada had the highest percentage growth with a 64 percent increase year over year with a total of 7,271 charter school students enrolled.

New Orleans charter schools had the highest market share of students with 76 percent of the public school students in the city attending charter schools there.

The Los Angeles Unified School District had the highest number of public charter school students with 98,576 in a district that has 661,301 students, charters and non-charters.

The attendance numbers in the report also point to a dispute between the administration of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Memphis City Schools leaders that affects state funding for charter schools.

The alliance report puts total Memphis City Schools enrollment at 107,491. But enrollment is not the same as average daily enrollment or average daily membership.

Average daily membership is what state funding to school systems in Tennessee is based on. And it is part of a disagreement between Memphis City Schools and the Tennessee Department of Education with charter schools at the center of the controversy.

Memphis City Schools was funded by the state in the previous fiscal year based on an average daily membership of 105,230, according to a July 31 letter from Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman to city schools superintendent Kriner Cash.

Huffman added that the “actual” average daily membership was 104,436.

While city schools got state funding based on the larger attendance number, the school system did not fund charter school students who were not part of the school district in the previous school year. But it counted those new students for purposes of state funding.

“It is our opinion that this position is in conflict with the law and basic principles of equity,” Huffman wrote Cash in July. “Because the department has paid MCS for all students currently enrolled in 2011-12, including those new to MCS, MCS must pass through per pupil (state) funds to the charter schools to cover all of the students enrolled in those schools.”

Cash briefed the countywide school board on the letter at the Oct. 30 board meeting.

“This interpretation is really a sharp departure from the way that we have paid charter schools throughout the time that I’ve been here,” Cash said. “It veers from the philosophy of the money follows the child.”

Huffman acknowledged that former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration had a different interpretation set out in a 2009 memo from state officials.

“While I acknowledge the lack of absolute clarity in the memo, it does not contemplate a scenario whereby MCS would base charter school funding on an ADM figure that represented anything less than the actual ADMs on which the district is funded for the present year,” Huffman wrote in the July letter.

State leaders followed up the July letter to Cash with an October letter to the school board.

School board chairman Billy Orgel urged Cash to “have some sense of urgency on this matter.”

“I would just ask that you move forward quickly to a resolution on this matter,” Orgel added.

Cash disputed that Huffman’s interpretation was state law and said he would seek a legal opinion from the Tennessee attorney general through a state legislator as he crafted a response.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Charter Schools Association is pointing to an October 2008 attorney general’s office legal opinion that would mean an end to the “administrative fee” Memphis City Schools charges out of the average daily membership state funding that goes to charter schools.

The opinion, requested by then-state Sen. Jamie Woodson, reads: “There is no statutory authority for a local board of education to impose an administrative fee upon charter schools.”

The opinion came out as Memphis City Schools officials planned to begin charging the administrative fee. The fee was based on a similar fee Metro Nashville Public Schools instituted that amounted to 5 percent of state funding passed on to a charter school.

The Metro Nashville fee was for providing employee benefits to charter school employees, managing student data and monitoring financial compliance.

The legal opinion cites the state law for funding charter schools and concludes, “There is no mention of an administrative fee in this statute or in any of the statutes governing charter schools.”