Path to Autonomy: Why the suburbs are about to look a gift horse in the mouth

by laurenleefox13

By considering the “path to autonomy” plan for the consolidated Shelby County Schools, the transition planning commission is taking advantage of the idea “we can start from scratch with this new school system.”  And what they’ve come up with is exciting, even to someone like me who has no kids.

The PTA (path to autonomy, because I don’t want to type it out 100 times) is very forward thinking.  It lets the good schools shine under community control.

Under PTA, high performing schools could apply for autonomy.  To do this, 60% of the parents, or 60% of the teachers just have to vote to change into a charter school.  Once that happens, the school will find a non-profit to run the school.  Proven educational non-profits are no longer a rarity, just look at KIPP and Gestalt Community Schools.  The non-profit could even be a church or, wait for, a municipal group, for example “Germantown Community Schools 401c3.”  The non-profit would have a contract with the school district, and as long as it continued to perform well, it would remain autonomous.

Under the PTA the school would have total control of its own educational plan, hiring of teachers, and budget.  It would receive all the state money that used to go the big district pot of money.  And it would remain, for free, in the current building that will remain the property of the county.  The autonomous school could buy back from the unified system things like busing, nutrition, and legal services. Current state law says that the students currently enrolled in a school when it becomes a charter have priority if they want to remain at the school for the first year.

Even childless, downtown resident, me, is excited.  I envision turning Downtown Elementary into a phenomenal charter where I could send my non-existent child someday.

Sounds good right?  Autonomy, neighborhood preference, freedom from bureaucracy….  Wrong.  The suburban municipal cheerleaders are already saying “no way!”  And they have some legitimate reasons.  After a year, charter school enrollment becomes open enrollment, which means anyone in the county could enter a lottery to go to your charter school.  Also, the unified school district must approve the charter and re-approve it every year to remain autonomous.  And we don’t trust them right?  They did deny more than a dozen charter last year because they didn’t want to give up the tax money.

But things appear to be turning in favor of the PTA autonomy model.  Did you know David Pickler is behind it?  Yes, that David Pickler.   The David Pickler who wanted permanent borders between Memphis City and Shelby County Schools.  He says the Tennessee Charter Schools Association and local legislators (I’m sure you can guess who) are also on board with the PTA model. 

Changes I predict we will see:  First, preference given to neighborhood kids.  A type of “zone plus” system.  Once a school becomes a charter, it can keep its traditional school zones, and if there is room, a lottery can be held for those extra spots.  Second, I expect charter approval from the Unified School Board will no longer be needed.  As long as the academic performance and the vote of 60% of the parents or teachers is there, your charter is granted.  And no re-approval is needed either, as long as the academic performance is there.

But if I know the suburbs, they aren’t waiting around to see if these changes are made.  Even though they don’t need to be made this year.  This year the school systems are still different, and next year current enrollment is guaranteed by state law.  That gives lawmakers two years to tweak the system.  And we have very fast acting lawmakers around here if you haven’t noticed. 

But I predict the suburbs will go ahead with municipal schools anyway.  They will pay in taxes for what could be free.  And its going to cost a lot more than the consultants are saying.  State law says an automatic 15 cent hike in the property tax or equivalent is needed.  But I predict much more will be needed. I highly doubt the school buildings will be totally free for municipal districts.  Even if they end up that way, it will take a lawsuit to get them.  And there’s a legal opinoin out there saying the county does not need to give funding to municipal schools.  (Yes, MCS got county funding.  But MCS was a “special school district” not a municpal district.)  Plus the municipalities haven’t even considered a state mandated “raining day fund” or the lack of federal funding for children with disabilities.

But municpal schools are your right.  So go for it!  It’s your right to pay for what is being offered for free.  And soon it could be my right as a Memphian to get an autonomous Downtown Elementary, free of charge.