October 20, 2023

Gabe Hart: Tennessee charter school commission takes marching orders from Lee in privatizing schools

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Although they were presented with a huge list of reasons not to do so, the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission overruled a local school district in order to give an okay to a Hillsdale-affiliated American Classical Academy school. Gabe Hart knows several reasons this is wrong.

Hart grew up in the district, and remembers a time when the demographics of the district were evenly split between Black and White students.

Twenty-six years later, our demographics are drastically different. Around 87% of the students in my school are  African-American, 6% are Hispanic, and the rest are made up of Caucasian, Indian, or Middle Eastern students. The school system itself doesn’t quite reflect the imbalance of JCM, but it also isn’t in line with the overall racial demographics of Madison County.

Currently, nearly 60% of students in Jackson-Madison County schools are African-American, while only 28% are Caucasian. In Madison County, however, those numbers are reversed — 58% of residents are white, while 38% are Black. The ratio disparity is complex and nuanced but clearly correlates with the rise of private school options in the area and the development of housing subdivisions in neighboring counties. It’s the prototypical practice of “white flight” but played out on a smaller stage in rural West Tennessee.

As this filtering of sub-groups has evolved over the last quarter-century, resources — financial, parental, and political—have been pilfered from the public school system, too. What public school integration tried so hard to accomplish has been undone by the resegregation of resources and families in Madison County.

As a veteran teacher, I’m well aware of the funding that will be taken from our district and shunted to this particular ACE charter school. I’m even more concerned about that aspect now as Tennessee mulls whether or not to reject billions of federal dollars earmarked for public education. Still, the financial impact of ACE isn’t my biggest concern.

Phillip Schwenk, vice-president of ACE schools, proposed that the demographics for the ACE school in Madison County be reflective of the district’s demographics.

Yet, every other charter school ACE has started nationwide hasn’t matched Schwenk’s proposal. In fact, of the 10 schools under the ACE umbrella with demographic information available, nine have enrollments of 70% or more white students, with five of the nine having 80% or higher white students.

Historically, most charter schools have failed to show any growth on the year-end standardized tests when compared with other schools in the local district. Charter schools have also traditionally been an off-ramp for middle-class white families who want to use public tax dollars for a quasi-private education, further segregating local education institutions within a community.

The overreach of the Lee-appointed charter commission wasn’t surprising; it was the next obvious step in the litany of attacks by Lee on public education in Tennessee. From the ghosts of CRT to the introduction of vouchers to the present-day authoritarian usurping of local elected officials’ decision-making, Lee is continuing to chip away at the foundation of public education, which was already eroding due to the false accountability of standardized testing.

As the nine members of the state charter commission belittled my school district for low standardized test scores, I couldn’t help but think how none have ever set foot in a school in Madison County; I couldn’t help but think how no one on that commission who was about to overrule elected school board representatives in my county had any personal investment in the students we serve daily. The charter commission reduced all our students to data points while ignoring the application’s multiple deficiencies.

Read the full op-ed here. 

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