Last Thursday, the Tennessee Public Charter Commission reversed the denial of a Hillsdale-affiliated charter school by the Jackson-Madison County School Board. The board has denied American Classical Education four times since 2022. I was educated through middle and high school in East Jackson public schools, where the new American Classical Academy is set to open, and like others in the community, I am excited about the prospect of a charter school improving outcomes for vulnerable students, utilizing public funds and an innovative model.
The concerning part about this, as cited by Commissioner Eddie Smith of the Commission, is “If the Jackson-Madison County School System was a great performing school system, then... reading proficiency in Jackson-Madison County is at 17%, 13% below the state average. Math is at 10%. That’s 18% below the state average.” He cited Knox County as a comparable system with better outcomes, yet having two charter schools to better serve students, as proof of his premise that “the school system had not adequately met the needs of students in those communities” which prompted them to consider ACAJM.
The Executive Director’s recommendation in favor of ACAJM was published on the Commission’s website on or around Monday, October 2nd. JMCSS responded with two separate email and text message blasts to their subscribers. The first was a call to action, asking the public to contact the Commission members opposing the Commission’s approval for the charter school. The second was their statement to the Commission, which was read into the record during the Commission hearing.
The substantive points in favor of overturning ACAJM’s denial, as stated in the written recommendation and presented in the hearing, were that ACAJM has an identified school leader, an identified community within Madison County to serve, and a sound financial plan to start up the school, even if current enrollment is only 50% of the projected number of students.
JMCSS’ claimed that ACAJM would have an adverse fiscal impact on the district. According to the committee’s fiscal review, the district has grown an “unassigned fund balance” from $8.7 million in 2019-20 to over $14 million in 2021-22. In other words, the money is there to make up for any loss of students to the charter school.
Commissioner Smith remarked that JMCSS seemed to be “playing games with the applicant,” which the Commission has seen before with other charter denials, specifically Rutherford Collegiate Prep. “I’m starting to sense that same thing here, given that we asked [JMCSS] for their per-pupil spending. They failed to provide it, yet it’s available on the Comptroller’s website. So they weren’t able to engage in fairly a good faith discussion with even our own staff.”
Commissioner Alan Levine later commented, “I’m sensitive to the negative fiscal impact on non-urban districts, but that isn’t what we have here.” Levine continued, “When I see data that says we are so miserably failing these students... and an alternative is proposed and they’re not even here to tell us why this is a bad idea, and to engage with us, I don’t know what to make of it other than they did not want to be here and be scrutinized.”
Since the Commission’s approval for ACAJM, JMCSS has vowed to take legal action because the Commissioners quoted here complained about the school district having no one present for the hearing. It’s flimsy ground to stand on, given that the process was carried out according to policy, in spite of indignant comments made in the hearing. I chalk it up to remorse over a missed opportunity. The achievement numbers cited in this hearing communicate the real missed opportunity. ACAJM is a chance to redeem some opportunities in the form of education reclaimed for students in desperate need.