CharterFolk Contributor David Mansouri – Charter Schools in the Volunteer State: A Track Record of Success and Opportunities for the Future

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today we’re pleased to share with you a Contributor Column from David Mansouri, the President and CEO of State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) in Nashville, Tennessee.

I provide a bio below.

David Mansouri is the President & CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).  SCORE’s mission is to catalyze transformative change in Tennessee education so that all students can achieve success in college, career, and life.  The nonprofit organization was founded in 2009 by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and since SCORE’s founding Tennessee has become a national leader in education reform. David sets the strategic vision for SCORE, guides SCORE’s leadership team, and builds and strengthens SCORE’s partnerships with leaders in education in Tennessee and across the nation.  Over the last decade of work in education, David has served as SCORE’s director of advocacy and communications and executive vice president.  Before joining the organization, David worked in political consulting and public relations, providing clients and candidates with campaign and communications strategy and issue advocacy support.  Earlier, he worked for the late US Senator Fred Thompson, Congressman Zach Wamp, and began his career at the Tennessee Republican Party. In addition to his work at SCORE, David serves on the board of directors of the Policy Innovators in Education (PIE) Network and the Memphis Education Fund.  He is currently a fellow in the Pahara-Aspen Education Fellowship, a network of diverse leaders who are reimagining America’s public schools, and is a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.  David is an alumnus of Leadership Tennessee and recently completed his service on the board of directors of the Association of Rice Alumni.A Tennessee native and product of Tennessee’s public schools, David is a graduate of Rice University where he earned a BA in Political Science and Music.  He received an MBA with honors from Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management.  

Let’s get straight to David’s column.

Charter Schools in the Volunteer State – A Track Record of Success and Opportunities for the Future

Tennessee has a lot to be proud of in our work to ensure public education in the Volunteer State delivers academic progress for students from kindergarten through career.  Over the last decade we’ve seen significant improvement on the Nation’s Report Card, led the nation in efforts to remove financial barriers to postsecondary education, and remained committed to a core set of education policy and practices that are student-centered and grounded in research and best practice.

One of the areas that makes Tennessee’s education improvement efforts unique is the strength of our charter school sector.  Today, Tennessee has 115 public charter schools serving just over 44,000 students – with nearly 92 percent of those students being students of color.  Prior to the pandemic, charter schools in Tennessee’s two largest districts had a higher percentage of schools meeting or exceeding growth expectations than their district-run counterparts.  And the Tennessee experience – both what has helped our sector grow and thrive and the opportunities ahead to serve more students well in the future – can inform and serve as a case study for efforts to improve student success across the country.

Tennessee Strengths

In a state like Tennessee, three things have been needed to establish our strong and thriving charter school sector: a core policy foundation, committed and bipartisan champions, and outstanding school leaders.

First, a strong policy core provides the foundation for educational improvement for every student, regardless of the type of school.  Over the last twelve years, Tennessee has made some important policy changes that we believe have had positive impacts on student success – higher academic standards, a commitment to student assessment and meaningful school improvement and accountability, a multi-measure teacher evaluation system that provides regular, detailed feedback to educators, and more recently a commitment to research-based literacy practices in both K-12 schools and in our teacher preparation programs connected to stronger and higher quality curriculum.  These foundational elements matter in every school, charter and traditional, and commitment to these policies requires champions who will prioritize defending them over time and across state leadership transitions, providing the time needed for strong and continued implementation.

Second, key policymakers and champions have played a leadership role across the political spectrum in our state.  At the state level, there has been more than 20 years of bipartisan gubernatorial support for great charter schools in Tennessee.  Important charter sector growth started under former Democrat Governor Phil Bredesen.  Republican Governor Bill Haslam’s two terms in office – from 2010-2018 – were marked by important policy and funding changes from lifting charter enrollment restrictions and caps, to the recruitment of strong charter networks to Tennessee, to state investments in charter school facilities.  Current Republican Governor Bill Lee has continued the commitment to the charter school sector with the creation of a state charter school commission in 2019 and by adding $24M in the 2021-22 state budget for charter school facilities, among other investments.  Committed leadership has also been in place in the legislature, where champions of the charter sector have led both legislative chambers as well as the education committees, with leadership and support coming from both political parties.  This bipartisan support has mattered at the local level as well.  Democrat and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean’s leadership provided the runway and support for some of the city’s best charter schools to launch and grow, personally recruiting great leaders from across the country to start schools in the Music City.  And all of these leaders have been supported by committed, place-based philanthropic partners who have championed and invested in the growth and success of great schools.

Finally, absolute best-in-class charter school leadership has made all the difference for students.  When I look at the Tennessee charter school sector, I think of amazing school leaders like Roblin Webb, Charlie Friedman, Randy Dowell, Todd Dickson, Yetta Lewis, and Lagra Newman who are dynamic, student-centered, leaders and who have built incredible schools and networks from scratch.  Some of these schools have been single sites and some part of larger national networks.  And all have been exemplary.  I also think of leaders like Derwin Sisnett and Steve Diggs, who are not only focused on the academic needs of students but on building the broader community supports that students and families need to be successful.

While there is a lot to be proud of – and learn from – in Tennessee, there are also huge opportunities for future growth.  We are seeing significant parent demand for high-quality charter schools in Tennessee, even amidst the difficulties caused by COVID-19; since 2018 charter enrollment has increased 12.6% while district-run school enrollment in the same districts has lost 4.3%.  Additionally, the need for more great schools is enormous.  Due to pandemic loses, the achievement gap between Black and white students in 3rd grade ELA has widened; Black students are now closer to 1/3 the proficiency level of white students.  Since fall of 2019, community college enrollment has declined 19.7% with the steepest drops for Black students.  And for low-income students enrolled in Tennessee high schools, data shows that only 1 in 10 will go on to earn a postsecondary degree or credential.

While we’ve made a lot of progress in Tennessee, we’re also still not where we need to be for students, and particularly for students of color and low-income students.

But where do we go next?  There are four areas that are top of mind.

The Fuel for Future Growth

The Tennessee Way is to find what’s working and do more of it; or finding the good and praising it, as Tennessean Alex Haley said (and Tennessean Lamar Alexander has often quoted).  As we think about a vision for future growth of charter schools in Tennessee and in our country, I’m convinced that maxim applies; we should do everything we can to accelerate and replicate where we are serving students well and do that in a way that connects a strong K-12 educational experience with a choice-filled life. 

To fuel this growth we need to strengthen the basics – facilities, authorizing, and funding; we need new models that focus on what actually matters – a good-paying job; we need to jumpstart a pipeline of future charter leaders; and we need to lift up and empower parents.

To serve more students well, we will have to get serious about facilities, authorizing, and funding, some of the most foundational resources needed for growth.  Additional investment at the state and local level is needed to support the physical infrastructure schools need to serve students and grow.  Too often local politics get in the way of student-centered authorizing decisions, so more pathways are needed for great schools to replicate, and research shows that high-quality charter schools can be replicated and serve more students with strong academic outcomes.  And our state school funding model needs an overhaul so that each school is getting what it needs to serve each individual student well.

To serve more students well, we need to embrace new and different school models.  In Tennessee, we are focused on ensuring education is a pathway to greater economic mobility and choice-filled lives, particularly for students of color and low-income students.  The next phase of growth for schools should include different kinds of school models, including those that more clearly connect an academic experience with workforce need.  I wonder, for example, about charter schools that might prioritize – for all students – a credential or certificate completion by the end of high school in addition to the high school diploma – or schools that might set longer-term goals for graduates.  How about a commitment to place 100% of students in jobs that provide a family with a sustaining wage within six years of high school graduation?  Just this week, Ford announced 5,700 new jobs being created in rural West Tennessee; what role could the charter sector play in ensuring students are quickly gaining the skills needed to fill these high paying jobs?

To serve more students well, we have to jumpstart our efforts to build a pipeline of future charter leaders.  Talent is everything, and Tennessee should launch a public-private partnership to recruit, train, and support education entrepreneurs and educators ready to launch the charter schools of the future.  We have a track record in Tennessee of doing this work in the past, and the quality and growth of the sector in the future will be dependent on our ability to prioritize and cultivate the talent needed to lead the schools of the future.

And finally, to serve more students well, we have to support and empower authentic parent voice and advocacy.  There is no place in the country that has parent leaders like we do in Tennessee, starting with leading parent advocates like Sarah Carpenter in Memphis.  Parents are speaking clearly about what they want for their children; we have a responsibility to lift up those voices and listen.  The need for authentic parent engagement in school improvement efforts, for example, has born out in lessons-learned from Tennessee’s Achievement School District; sustainable change requires parent leadership.  Building strong parent advocacy and ownership efforts at the city and school level – from providing advocacy training to registering parents to vote – has to be a priority in the work ahead.

The Tennessee Way

There are schools in our state – many of which are charters – that are proving what is possible for students, and we must accelerate the opportunities for those schools to grow and serve more students and families.  State leaders are dedicated to helping more great schools get started.  Student need is significant.  We know what’s working and now we need to do more of it.

That is the Tennessee Way.