Haslam can improve Tennessee education

ByJamal McCall (op-ed)

One way is to increase state support for charter schools, ending the funding disparity that favors district schools.

The recent midterm elections have been deemed “historic” by both political commentators and experts.

As a Tennessee educator, however, I believe that the Volunteer State is poised to make history in education reform. I want to congratulate Gov.-elect Bill Haslam on his victory and encourage him to immediately embrace the tremendous momentum that is addressing our persistent education challenges.

By building on recent advancements, our new governor can make a lasting difference for the children of Tennessee.

Tennessee achieved a major success in 2009 when educators, politicians and community members came together to become one of only two states awarded funding in the first round of the federal Race to the Top competition.

Our $500 million federal grant award, along with a $90 million grant to Memphis City Schools from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has brought Tennessee to a pivotal moment for making lasting improvement in our public schools.

At the same time, “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” Davis Guggenheim’s documentary about the education crisis in America, also has helped to intensify the national debate about how we can ensure that every child in America will share the dream of a quality education.

With this framework in place, Haslam will lead a state that has the potential to end the stubborn achievement gap in Tennessee between low-income and affluent students.

As the executive director of KIPP Memphis, I have three suggestions that will help our next governor keep Tennessee on track toward educational excellence.

Support alternative pathways to recruit and retain talented teachers and leaders. Thanks to the generosity of leading local philanthropists, including the Hyde Family Foundation, Memphis has benefited from the expansion of organizations like Teach For America, New Leaders for New Schools and Building Excellent Schools.

These entrepreneurial organizations focus on creating a talent pipeline of teachers and school leaders for Memphis City Schools. I urge the governor-elect to expand his support for these and other like-minded organizations to attract the best and the brightest into our state’s classrooms and principals’ offices.

Extend learning time for struggling students. If we are going to close the achievement gap, we must lengthen the school day and year. Like other students at many high-performing charter schools, KIPP Memphis students attend school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. most days, which allows us to offer both intensive instruction and enrichment opportunities such as orchestra, computer technology and physical education.

This “no shortcuts” approach is yielding results. In 2009, eighth-graders at KIPP DIAMOND Academy middle school outperformed both the state and district average in reading.

Memphis City Schools Supt. Kriner Cash has taken the first steps toward implementing a longer day to spur improvement in the district’s failing schools and has indicated his support for extending the school day for all students eventually.

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I urge Haslam to support implementation of this proven idea across Tennessee and help raise the achievement of all of our students to compete with students in the highest-performing education systems in the world.

Support equitable funding for charter schools. Despite the recent increase in the charter school cap, Tennessee’s 22 charter schools make up less than 2 percent of all schools in the state. In Memphis, families in underserved neighborhoods fill waiting lists at many charter schools, yet charter school growth is hampered by the state’s funding structure.

Charter schools in Tennessee only receive 75 percent of the funding of district public schools and get no support for facilities costs. The funding inequities in our state discourage more high-quality charter schools from opening and expanding.

Haslam should make every effort to equalize funding for district and charter schools alike, as no child should be penalized because of the type of public school they attend.

Tennessee has a proud history of bold education reform and has already made significant progress toward creating a world-class public school system.

I hope the governor-elect will continue to drive our state forward so one day we can make the educational aspirations of all Tennessee’s children a reality.

Jamal McCall is executive director of KIPP Memphis charter schools.

KIPP Memphis is part of a national network of 99 college preparatory charter schools in urban and rural communities. Since its inception, 88 percent of KIPP eighth-graders have gone on to college.

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