Tennessee legislature focus should be education

ByJamal McCall (op-ed)

Now that the election is over, it’s time to look forward to January 2013. That’s when the Tennessee General Assembly will convene to start putting into effect the ideas and solutions that were brought up before Election Day.

One of the issues that must be addressed in the new legislative session is public education. The economic implications of a well-educated workforce are huge: The United States is slipping down the World Economic Forum’s rankings of competitive global economies, and there is an increasing gap between the skills American workers have and the skills American employers need.

In addition to economics, we have a moral imperative to make sure that all students, regardless of their background, receive the best education possible. As an African-American man, and a product of public schools, I saw many of my friends struggle in school and eventually give up on the idea of college.

In my capacity as executive director of KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools, I see students at risk of this every day. The mission of KIPP’s four college-preparatory charter schools in Memphis is to make sure all of our students are equipped to succeed in college and in life. That’s a mission all public schools can and must share.

As we look toward our state’s future, I have three recommendations that can boost a child’s chance for success. Many of these solutions have already been successfully implemented in other states, and they have great potential to change students’ lives here in Tennessee.

1) Invest in our state’s youngest learners. For students from underserved backgrounds, high-quality early childhood education can mean they never encounter the achievement gap in the first place. Several states are already making this a reality. Three states — Georgia, Oklahoma and Florida — now offer prekindergarten classes for all 4-year-olds, while several others — including California, New Jersey and Kansas — have programs designed specifically for low-income families.

Here in Tennessee, there are individual pre-K programs in underserved communities, like the one KIPP Memphis just opened in partnership with Porter-Leath. But far more families need support than these programs can accommodate. We need a broad statewide effort to expand access to high-quality pre-K programs at all public schools, district and charter.

2) Increase access and affordability of school facilities for use by charter schools. If students and teachers are going to be at their best, they need safe, clean, well-maintained spaces to learn and teach in. Unfortunately, for many charter schools, those spaces are hard to come by. Under current Tennessee law, charter schools receive no support for facilities costs, meaning they have to seek out and rent facilities themselves, using funds and time that could otherwise be invested in the classroom.

States like Georgia are starting to address this issue by passing laws that require school districts to make unused facilities available to high-quality charter schools at little or no cost. For high-performing charter schools in Tennessee, a similar solution could make the difference between struggling to meet the needs of our existing students and expanding comfortably to serve even more.

3) Support alternative pathways for teacher certification. To prepare more students for the rigors of college and career, we need more highly effective teachers to teach them. This is especially true in math and science, where there is a shortage of teachers throughout Tennessee. Organizations like Teach For America, which recruits recent college graduates to teach in high-need public schools, are helping address this issue. But we need to develop an even more robust talent pool.

One way to do that is to free up charter schools with long-standing track records of success to train new teachers themselves. States like California and New York have already started doing this, by allowing charter schools to partner with local teacher credentialing programs and to develop residency programs on their campuses. This is the kind of solution that could transform the teaching profession in Tennessee, by allowing schools to find and develop the kind of teaching talent they need most in their classrooms.

Our nation’s economic foundation depends on transforming public education; so does the welfare of our students. This January, Tennessee has an opportunity to build on the lessons of other states, and bring bold reforms to our public schools.