Below are some frequently asked questions regarding public charter schools in Tennessee, with links to relevant statutes, rules or other information.
Charter schools are public schools operated by independent, non-profit governing bodies that must include parents. In Tennessee, public charter school students are measured against the same academic standards as students in other public schools. Local boards of education ensure that only those charter schools open and remain open that are meeting the needs of their students, district and community. Local boards do this through rigorous authorization processes, ongoing monitoring of the academic and financial performance of charter schools, and, when necessary, through the revocation or non-renewal of charters.
The questions below are sorted by subject area. Simply click on the question and you will be directed to the answer below. The Tennessee Public Charter Schools Act is contained in Tennessee Code Annotated (T.C.A.). Title 49, Chapter 13. Accept the terms of agreement by clicking the "I Agree" button. To access, enter "49-13" in the Search Field and hit "Search".
Many of these answers are adapted from the FAQs provided by the Tennessee School Boards Association More questions, particularly those for authorizing local boards of education, are answered in TSBA’s FAQ document.
In 2013, the Tennessee General Assembly passed several bills affecting public charter schools.
Changes to Charter School Governance
“Charter management organization” was added to the defined terms in the Public Charter Schools Act. According to 2013 Public Chapter 326, a charter management organization, or CMO, is “a nonprofit entity that operates multiple charter schools at least one (1) of which is in Tennessee.” Governing bodies of public charter schools must have at least one parent from one of the schools operated by the governing body. Charter management organizations may satisfy this requirement by having “an advisory school council . . . [consisting] of no fewer than five (5) members and . . . [including] the principal, at least one (1) parent and at least one (1) teacher representative.” CMOs may also submit a single audit for all their Tennessee charter schools, as long as that audit “includes all information required under [T.C.A. § 49-13-127] for each school.”
Changes to the Charter School Application, Appeal and Renewal Processes
As previously allowed, a chartering authority may consider “whether the establishment of the charter school will have a substantial negative fiscal impact on the LEA such that authorization of the charter school would be contrary to the best interest of the pupils, school district or community.” Appeal of an application denied at least in part for that reason will, however, no longer go to the State Treasurer. Instead, it will be part of the review conducted by the State Board of Education on appeal.
This public chapter also now requires chartering authorities to, one year prior to the renewal application deadline, send the charter school “a performance report that directly reflects the renewal evaluation.”
Laws Affecting Articulation Between Charter Schools
Charter schools may now give preference in admissions to students enrolled in the previous year in “[a]nother charter school that has an articulation agreement with the enrolling public charter school; provided, that the articulation agreement has been approved by the chartering authority; or . . . [a] pre-K program operated by the charter school sponsor.” For example, if a chartering authority approves the arrangement, students attending a charter elementary school may be given preference in admission to a charter middle school over students who did not attend the charter elementary school in the prior year. It is important to note that this arrangement must be approved by the chartering authority (the LEA or the ASD), and that such arrangements may make charter schools with such an arrangement ineligible for certain federal grants.
Conversion Charter Schools
2013 Public Chapter 326 made explicit what was implicit in the prior law: namely that a chartering authority could ask the sponsor of an application for a new charter school to instead convert an existing public school. If the sponsor refuses the request, the review of its application for a new charter school shall not change. This public chapter outlines enrollment preferences at conversion charter schools, and gives directors the discretion to allow teachers or administrators at a school being converted to “transfer into vacant positions for which they are certified in other schools in the LEA.”
Updated Bidding Requirements
Just like other public schools in the State, public charter schools must bid contracts for goods that exceed a certain amount. The law was amended to raise the threshold from $5,000 to $10,000, and to allow public charter schools, just like other public schools, to contract for professional services without competitive bidding. The law still requires the governing body of a public charter school to approve contracts for goods in excess of $10,000.
Though a few states allow for-profit entities to operate public charter schools, and many states allow non-profit charter school governing bodies to contract with for-profit entities to operate or manage charter schools, Tennessee law prohibits either of those arrangements.
Tenn. Code Annotated § 49-13-104(7) defines the sponsor: as “any individual, group, or other organization filing an application in support of the establishment of a public charter school . . .” That section notes that “a sponsor cannot be a for-profit entity.”
The law requires the governing body, which operates the charter school to be “a not-for-profit organization” with 501(c)(3) exemption. The law in that same section (§ 49-13-106)(b)(1)(B)) says “no charter shall be granted to a for-profit corporation.”
Tennessee law does allow a charter school governing body to “contract for services,” but it specifically limits that authority: “except for the management or operation of the charter school by a for-profit entity.” So, a charter school could contract with a for-profit entity for limited services, but cannot give up the actual management or operation of the school to that entity.
No. The governing body of the public charter school is responsible for managing and operating the public charter school. There are certain laws (or statutes) and rules that charter schools must follow, such as licensing of teachers, open meetings and public records, civil rights, health and safety standards, public records, immunizations, open meetings, etc. (see Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-13-105 and 111), the sponsor of a proposed charter school may apply either to the local board of education or the commissioner of education for a waiver of any state board rule or statute that inhibits or hinders the proposed charter school’s ability to meet its goals or comply with its mission statement. Charter schools are not required to follow local board of education policies, but the policies of the governing body of the charter school.
All students residing within the jurisdiction of the authorizing LEA may attend a public charter school. Also, an LEA may authorize charters to enroll students residing outside the LEA in which the public charter school is located pursuant to the LEA out-of-district enrollment policy.
For those charters authorized by the Achievement School District, all students within the LEA who are zoned to attend or enrolled in a school that is eligible to be placed in the achievement school district.
Charter schools must enroll all students if they submit a timely application and if space permits.
Subject to T.C.A. § 49-13-113, if the number of applicants exceeds the capacity of the school, then preference must be given to students in the following order:
No. Charter schools may not refuse to enroll students because of their eligibility for special education services. T.C.A. § 49-13-111(b). Though charter schools may not presently have the infrastructure or personnel to meet the needs of special education students identified in the students’ individualized education programs (IEPs), charter schools are responsible for ensuring their students receive those services.
Because Tennessee charter schools are considered part of the LEA (except for ASD chartered schools), the LEA must treat the chartered schools just as any other school in the district in the provision of and monitoring of special education services.
In some cases, the charter school may contract with the local board of education to provide the services through a separate fee for services contract to ensure funding is directed to the entity providing the services.
A team of LEA special education directors, State Department and Board of Education staff and national special education experts developed primers for charter school sponsors, authorizers and operators relative to the provision of special education services. These are available on the Department of Education’s website: http://www.tn.gov/education/fedprog/Charter_Sch_SpecEd.shtml.
Charter schools, by law, have a different governance structure, but their formation alone does not distinguish them. Differences and similarities vary based on the individual charter school and the public schools located within the same community. As authorizers of public charter schools, the local board of education can determine what kinds of charter schools are authorized.
The purposes of the Public Charter Schools Act, including providing “options relative to the governance and improvement of high priority schools, the delivery of instruction for those students with special needs, improv[ing] learning for all students and clos[ing] the achievement gap[s],” can be accomplished in any LEA school. T.C.A. § 49-13-102. However, chartered schools “provide [one] alternative means within the public school system for ensuring accomplishment of the necessary outcomes of education by allowing the establishment and maintenance of public charter schools that operate within a school district structure but are allowed maximum flexibility to achieve their goals.” T.C.A. § 49-13-102.
No. T.C.A. § 49-13-104(7) defines sponsors of charter schools (those who file the applications). That subsection includes this prohibition: "a sponsor cannot be . . . a religious or church school or promote the agenda of any religious denomination or religiously affiliated entity."
Federal law also prohibits a charter school from being operated by a religious organization.
ESEA Sec. 5210(1)(E) defines a charter school as "a public school that . . . is nonsectarian in its programs, admissions policies, employment practices, and all other operations, and is not affiliated with a sectarian school or religious institution."
Public charter school students are students of the school district (LEA). If they want to transfer from one public school to another (whether chartered or not), they would have to comply with the LEA’s transfer policy (and they would have the same right of appeal as all students eligible to attend the public schools).
At any public school, including a public charter school, concerns about school operations should first be directed to the school, starting with the teacher or school administrator with oversight over the particular issue. From there, you can take concerns to the charter school’s governing body—an independent, non-profit governing body that must include a parent of a child at the school.
In Tennessee, charter schools are authorized by and considered part of the school district in which they operate. The local board of education, as the authorizer, has the ultimate authority over a charter school, because failure to comply with the law or meet the terms of the charter agreement (including meeting academic performance goals) may be grounds for the local board of education to revoke the charter and close the school.
So, if you do not feel that your concern was adequately addressed by the school leader or the governing body, you can share your concerns with the local board of education staff member with responsibility for charter school issues.
If you feel that a child is being discriminated against because of disability, national origin, sex or race, you should contact the local school district's civil rights officer and/or the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.
If you believe that child abuse has occurred, you should contact the Department of Children’s Services.
Charter schools in Tennessee, unlike charter schools in some other states, are part of the LEA. So, data from the charter schools is included with district level data (the charter schools, of course, must provide the data to the LEA).
No. The law does not allow further negotiation after approval of the charter by the local board of education. Just like any other contract approved by the local board of education, the charter agreement should be ready to sign when the board votes to approve the charter. See T.C.A. § 49-13-110 and this AG opinion.
Local boards of education are the authorizers of public charter schools. They decide which charter school applications are approved or denied.
Pursuant to State Board of Education Rule 0520-14-01, the Dept. of Education provides the application charter school sponsors must use when applying to a local board of education for a charter school, and sample scoring criteria for the local board of education to use when evaluating applications.
Other than providing those materials, the Dept. of Education does not play any role in the approval process. The State Board of Education (not the Dept.) may hear appeals of denials by local boards of education. T.C.A. § 49-13-108.
Charter schools are public schools operated by independent, non-profit governing bodies that must include parents. In Tennessee, charter schools are still part of the LEA in which they operate (in some states, charter schools function as their own LEA).
As authorizers, local boards of education ensure that only those charter schools open and remain open that are meeting the needs of their students. Local boards do this through rigorous authorization processes, ongoing monitoring of the academic and financial performance of charter schools, and, when necessary, through the revocation or non-renewal of charters. See, e.g., T.C.A. §§ 49-13-108, 111, 120, and 122. Charter schools must provide annual audits, performance and financial reports to the LEA (and to the Dept. of Ed.).
The Dept. of Education currently oversees a federal charter schools program grant that includes competitive sub-grants for the planning year and first two years of operation of charter schools that receive the grants ($600,000 spread over those three years). The Dept. of Education has ongoing monitoring of those schools receiving grants, including on-site visits and data collection.
The Dept. also provides regular training for local boards of education to help them increase their capacity as authorizers.
Out of the annual reports required in T.C.A. § 49-13-120, the Dept. of Education provides an annual report to the legislature on all public charter schools in TN. The Dept. also helps disseminate best practices between charter and non-charter public schools, T.C.A. § 49-13-131, and has served on legislatively appointed task forces studying charter school issues in the State.
Yes. T.C.A. § 49-13-107 requires sponsors to include in their applications the “proposed instructional goals and methods,” the “proposed rules and policies for governance and operation of the school,” “the qualifications required of employees of the proposed public charter school,” and identification of the sponsoring individuals and proposed governing body members. If those or other elements of the application are common to an existing school, it would be reasonable for the authorizer to assess whether approving another school with similar leadership, operational plans or instructional methods would be “in the best interests of the pupils, the school district, or community.” T.C.A. § 49-13-108.
Yes. Authorizers are required to review the capacity of the sponsoring organization and proposed governing body to comply with applicable laws; hire, supervise and train staff; implement an academic program; and manage millions of dollars in order to help students meet the goals established in the charter application. T.C.A. § 49-13-107. If the same organization is proposing to launch multiple schools, the authorizer may determine that the sponsor has only demonstrated the capacity to do all of those things in some, but not all of the proposed schools. The authorizer may determine that approving all of the schools at the same time would not be “in the best interests of the pupils, the school district, or community.” T.C.A. § 49-13-108. Tennessee law does not allow an authorizer to approve a single charter for multiple schools. However, a sponsor seeking to open additional schools could duplicate applicable portions of the sponsor’s earlier applications and include the performance of existing schools in applications for new schools.
I've heard that “the money follows the child” to public charter schools. Is that accurate? Is the education of public charter school students funded in the same way as the education of other public school students?
Yes, the money does follow the students, to the entity responsible for educating those students. In the case of students attending non-chartered public schools, the LEA (or central office) decides how to spend most of those funds. For public charter schools, however, the money flows all the way to the school the students attend. The principal of a public charter school and the school’s governing body decide how to allocate funds for personnel, facilities, curriculum, supplies and other operating costs. Details about which funds follow charter school students, broken down by each LEA, are available here.
Tennessee law requires local boards of education to "allocate to the charter school an amount equal to the per student state and local funds received by the LEA and all appropriate allocations under federal law or regulation, including, but not limited to, Title I and ESEA funds." T.C.A. 49-13-112(a). All local and State funds generated for education, “excluding the proceeds of debt obligations and associated debt service,” are paid to the charter schools, on a per pupil basis. Federal funds, such as Title I funds (funds dedicated to helping students eligible for free or reduced price lunch) flow to the district or school, based on federal regulations. LEAs submit a plan for a portion of these funds to be used for districtwide services. Another portion is dedicated for schools (whether chartered or not) with a majority of poor students, for schoolwide services. Public charter schools may participate in districtwide programs funded with those federal funds in the same manner as other non-chartered public schools.
Just like other public schools, public charter schools may fund programs by applying for local, State and federal grants, and seeking donations from individuals and organizations.
Because public charter schools do not receive proceeds from existing bond offerings used to pay for new construction or capital improvement of other public school facilities, charter schools often use more of their existing revenue to cover facilities costs than LEAs. Public charter schools may seek their own bond funding for facilities, with the chartering authority’s approval, or may have their request included with an LEA’s bond request. T.C.A. 49-13-124(b).
Charter schools may receive funds to meet the needs of eligible students through the BEP, federal IDEA Part B funds and high-cost reimbursements if received by the LEA from the State. BEP funds are generated on an on-going basis, regardless of the level of need at an individual school. IDEA funds are provided on a reimbursement basis for services provided. LEAs submit high cost reimbursement from the State at the end of each year. Qualifying services provided to students at any public school in the LEA, including charter schools, should be included in that LEA request to the State.
The BEP Blue Book shows that several positions are generated specifically for special education. Those positions are generated and then funded at a certain rate. By taking those special ed. positions generated (classroom teachers, supervisors, assistants, etc.), multiplying them by the appropriate rate (includes salary & benefits), and then divide by the prior year’s total average daily membership, a charter school can determine the amount generated for special education. This funding is not additional funding, but it is generated for charter schools to help meet special education needs.
A charter school, like an LEA, is generally not required to provide transportation to students. If the charter school decides to provide transportation and does so in compliance with Tennessee statutes on transportation (§ 49-6-2110 et. seq.), the transportation component of BEP funds would flow to the charter school. The BEP transportation component is paid for all students at the school, not just those actually using the transportation (just as the State pays LEAs transportation funds regardless of how many students use the service).
State and Federal special education and homeless education laws (e.g., IDEA or McKinney-Vento) may mandate charter schools provide transportation to certain students, even if the school is not otherwise providing transportation.
The applicable laws are found in T.C.A. § 49-6-2101 through 2118, and State Board of Education Rule 0520-01-05. These include the following provisions:
More information on pupil transportation can be found
Any public school in Tennessee may use blended learning as part of its curriculum. Blended learning may be defined as mixing different learning environments. Today, “blended learning” is usually used to describe environments that use computers and online resources instead of or in addition to a reduced amount of paper-based materials like workbooks and worksheets.
The Virtual Public Schools Act regulates situations where students could participate in public education from someplace other than a public school. It does not appear to prohibit blended learning in any public school. T.C.A. § 49-16-203(2) defines a “virtual school” as “a public school in which the school uses technology in order to deliver a significant portion of instruction to its students via the Internet in a virtual or remote setting.” And, T.C.A. § 49-13-106(c)(2) states that “no cyber-based public charter school may be authorized.” In this context, “cyber-based” seems synonymous with “virtual.” Neither the Virtual Public Schools Act nor the Public Charter Schools Act seems to prohibit a charter school from incorporating computers and online resources as part of the instruction overseen by licensed teachers in the school building.
Students in any public school may use online or computer-based materials as part of the instruction overseen by licensed teachers (T.C.A. § 49-13-111(i) requires all teachers in a public charter school to be licensed.). Tennessee law allows teachers to deliver instruction in a variety of ways, including through physical textbooks and workbooks, student-led instruction, online or electronic media, and in coordination with tutors or educational assistants or specialists. In other words, Tennessee public school teachers may send students to a computer lab monitored by an educational assistant, to complete assigned online or electronic materials. This is similar to students spending time in a study hall, monitored by an educational assistant, completing material in a physical workbook for social studies or history class.
A school incorporating blended learning can meet the class size requirements set in T.C.A. § 49-1-104. The law sets specific average class sizes per grade level unit (K-3, 4-6 and 7-12) and maximum class sizes that schools must adhere to. Certain classes may exceed the limits (e.g., art or physical education), and the limits do not apply to pullout classes. Having students spend parts of their day in a learning lab (overseen by an educational assistant) would not negatively affect the class size as long as the groups of students meeting with the licensed teachers met the applicable limits. Public charter schools may apply for waivers from the class size statute, if compliance with the statute wound hinder the school’s proposed mission.
Below are examples of public schools that purposefully incorporate “blended” learning into their academic programs:
Merrol Hyde Magnet School (Hendersonville, Tennessee):
A PLATO/Learning Lab provides computer based differentiated instruction to help students who may need remediation or enrichment in various courses. The lab director coordinates assignments with individual teachers.
East End Preparatory School (Nashville, Tennessee):
Students rotate through classes with three teachers each day: language arts, math and science, and a third block of time that includes either supplemental, individualized work in the learning lab, arts or social studies.
Rocketship Education (California):
Time in class with teachers is focused on “instruction, guided practice and extending critical thinking skills.” This work in the classroom builds on online instruction in a learning lab and response to intervention (RTI) programs with tutoring and small-group work.
An eligible public school may convert to a public charter school in two ways. The parents of sixty percent (60%) of the children enrolled at the school or sixty percent (60%) of the teachers assigned to the school may petition the LEA. The LEA must agree for the school to be converted. Or, an LEA may convert an eligible public school on its own initiative. Decisions to convert a public school to a public charter school are not appealable to the state board of education.
Tennessee law does not require that the application process and timeline for new charter schools be applied to conversion charter schools. However, the law does require that any conversion occur at the beginning of the school year, and that parents and staff be given opportunities to transfer from the converting school. Thus, an LEA is likely to require parents and charter operators applying to convert a school to follow a similar timeline and process to allow the LEA to thoroughly review a proposal and for affected students and staff to transition according to their desires
An LEA might, for example, require parent or teacher petitions to be submitted earlier than letters of intent for new charter schools (currently 60 days prior the application deadline). Doing so would allow the LEA time to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for sponsors to apply to run the converted school if it desired to do so.
If the parents or teachers initiate the conversion, the process could be as follows:
If the LEA initiates the conversion the process would be as follows:
A sample timeline is below:
|Date||Action||Potential Ongoing activities|
January 1, 2013
Parents or teachers submit petition to LEA
LEA verifies petition includes signatures from 60% of parents or teachers.
February 15, 2013
LEA (optional) issues RFP for charter school sponsors to apply to operate the school.
LEA and petitioners could collaborate on this RFP.
LEA could also discuss other conversion options (magnet, Innovation Zone, e.g.).
April 1, 2013
Applications submitted in response to RFP received by LEA.
LEA forms and prepares review team(s).
Reviewers interview applicants, and
Prepare recommendation to local board.
If recommending approval, charter contract prepared.
July 1, 2013
Local board votes on applications, signs charter agreement.
LEA informs parents and teachers of conversion to occur in 2014, provides information on school and employment options.
Charter school operator recruits students.
Preparation for transition.
Parents and teachers at current school apply to transfer to other schools (if desired).
Charter school conducts enrollment period and lottery.
August 1, 2014
Converted school or grades open.
If converting less than the whole school, transition activities would continue until conversion complete.
Depending on the LEA’s approach, the converted school may remain the school of zone, or become a choice school open to students from a larger geographic area.
Parents may enroll their children in another public school without penalty. If the converted school has more applicants and has to conduct a lottery for enrollment, students previously enrolled at the school receive first preference. The transfer rights of teachers, administrators and other personnel outlined in T.C.A. § 49-13-106 must be protected. Unless noted otherwise within Tennessee Code, conversion charter schools must comply with the requirements in Title 49, Chapter 13 of state law.
Given this unlikely but possible scenario, it is important that parents or teachers petitioning to convert a school, and the LEA discuss alternative plans throughout the process. Instead of chartering the school, for example, the LEA might convert it to a magnet school or move the school into an Innovation Zone, allowing for more school level autonomy, regardless of the governance type of the school.