A charter incubator goes to the capital

For a state in which charter school performance has outpaced student gains at traditional public schools, Tennessee should have a better charter law. The dearth of authorizers and the lack of adequate funding for classrooms and building space led the National Alliance for Public Charters Schools to rank the Volunteer State thirty-third out of forty-three in its analysis of charter laws. Imagine what Tennessee charters could do without one hand tied behind their backs.

That’s the assertion the Tennessee Charter School Incubator (TCSI) should put to lawmakers now that it has direct access to the legislature. This week, TCSI announced that it was merging with the Tennessee Charter School Association to create a first-of-its-kind organization that both lobbies for and establishes quality charter options. If there is a group that can convince Tennessee’s more timid lawmakers to adopt the better policies they have avoided, it’s TCSI.

The Incubator has been busy since 2009 developing “reform ecosystems” in Memphis and Nashville, bringing together charter schools, school districts, venture capitalists, and nonprofit groups that might not ordinarily consort with one another. In addition to recruiting effective charter leaders and providing support for schools, it has been successful in helping to increase charter market share in cities where it’s active; charter enrollment increased last year by 21 percent in Memphis alone.

But it’s working in a state that has been lukewarm to the charter movement. Two years ago, the legislature withdrew a ninety-school cap on the number of charters allowed in Tennessee and opened charters up to more than just children in failing schools, but those positive developments were offset by the failure this year to create a statewide charter authorizer. And for all the advances TCSI has made in the last few years, it has spent a lot of energy making up for the lack of public funding for charters by convincing private funders to invest in its cause.

In the end, Tennessee lawmakers (along with the school districts in their constituencies) mostly remain intent on trying to contain the charter sector. That’s a familiar story, but the kind of group TCSI now has formed—the Tennessee Charter School Center—is decidedly unfamiliar. Incubation has emerged as a successful strategy to scale up quality in the charter sector, and it’s noteworthy that groups such as TCSI and the Tennessee Charter School Association are creating a kind of uber-advocate for good charters and good charter laws. If this model works in Tennessee, more states should take notice.

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