After a year of heated state-level debate about charter schools, two Tennessee advocacy groups are joining forces with a goal of keeping charters more accountable.
The charter school community has largely remained quiet during discussions of closing poor performing charter schools, including this year when the Metro Nashville Public Schools board voted to close Smithson Craighead Middle School  after falling into the bottom 5 percent of schools.
“I think we’ll be very active in holding schools accountable for results,” said Greg Thompson, chief executive officer of the Tennessee Charter School Incubator, a group that grooms future charter school leaders which is merging with the policy-focused Tennessee Charter Schools Association.
“The charter schools’ responsibility is to produce academic results. If they can’t do that, they don’t need to exist,” said Thompson. “We will stand behind closures when they are warranted for lack of performance.”
The last year was a rocky one for the charter school community, which represents schools that are publicly funded with taxpayer dollars and privately run. The schools are part of an education reform movement spreading across the country that seeks to better improve student performance, but skeptics say the new institutions are a distraction to improving traditional public education.
State lawmakers had fought this spring over whether to allow the state to approve new charter schools rejected by local area school boards — a push driven in part by the state charter school association. The measure ultimately fell victim to politics just before the legislature adjourned for the year but promises a return when the legislature reconvenes in January.
Under the new dual-purpose organization — named the Tennessee Charter School Center which he said is the first of its kind in the country — Thompson said the group will still remain involved in policy and lobbying while also focusing on readying new charter school operators.
The incubator was responsible for helping launch several charter schools in the Davidson County area, including Intrepid College Prep, Liberty Collegiate Academy, Nashville Classical, Nashville Prep and Purpose Preparatory Academy.
Although he said he’s unsure specifically what the merged group will lay out as legislative priorities next year, he said the center will focus on advocating for fairness in funding and access to buildings to house schools, empower parents to exercise school choice, and recruit, develop and support new charter school leaders and educators.
After the transition, the center will lose Matt Throckmorton, the association’s executive director and main lobbyist. Throckmorton played a key role in negotiating for expanding charter school laws and will stay on with the center for a limited time in an advisory capacity, according to Thompson. Attempts to reach Throckmorton were unsuccessful at the time of publication.
Will Pinkston, a member of the MNPS board and a former board member of Nashville Prep charter school, said he wants to see more ownership from the charter school community as the new schools play a bigger part in public education.
“They do a very good job trumpeting successes and a very poor job acknowledging and confronting failures,” said Pinkston.
“The bright, shiny part of education is starting something new. The hard part is helping these schools fulfill the promise of reform,” he said.
Last school year, Tennessee was home to 47 charter schools housed mainly in Memphis and Nashville with others in Chattanooga for a combined 12,000 students.