Herenton Charter Applications Get Slow Walked



He won't say it himself, but former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton is getting the stall treatment on his application to start seven charter schools in Memphis this year.

"I am waiting to receive whatever questions the state treasurer is going to raise," Herenton said Monday. "I assume we will get them today. I am curious to know the questions."

In October, the unified city and county school board denied applications for 17 new charter schools, including several from Herenton and his partners Harmony Public Schools and the Cosmos Foundation. Herenton's group wants to start seven schools in Memphis in 2012 and two more in Shelby County outside of Memphis in 2013.

His fate as an educator is now in the hands of state officials in Nashville, including Treasurer David Lillard, a former Republican member of the Shelby County Commission. As Jane Roberts wrote in The Commercial Appeal Monday, Lillard may have follow-up questions once the responses are received.

"This could go back and forth for a awhile," state spokesman Blake Fontenay told Roberts.

I bet it could.

Fontenay is a former CA reporter and commenter who covered the mayor and City Hall during Herenton's tempestuous last two terms. Herenton and Fontenay were not mutual admirers.

The rejection of the applications in October combined with the delay that could last several more weeks means it is unlikely that applicants will be able to recruit students and secure buildings in time to open in August.

That's too bad because Herenton deserves a shot. To suggest he is not as qualified as any of the current charter school operators is absurd. He attended city schools, graduated from one of them, taught in them, and was a principal, superintendent, and mayor. He may have been unpopular in his last two mayoral terms, but many a fallen urban school superintendent, football coach, or politician has picked up the pieces and moved on to a second, third, or fourth act. The former school officials from Chattanooga and Charlotte who met with the Transition Planning Team admitted as much.

I don't think he is doing this for the money. He has two pensions that pay him more than his former mayoral salary.

Is he a front for Texas-based Harmony Schools and the Cosmos Foundation? Probably in a way he is. But every charter school in Memphis that I have seen has a hidden hand behind it. Applicants should be accepted or rejected on the merits of their proposals and their track records.

Memphis has the majority of the charter schools in Tennessee, and the largest number of poor children and failing schools. State funding follows students who transfer to charter schools. School boards can reject charter school applications because the loss of state funding imposes a financial hardship. In that case, why have any charter schools? And why merge the city and county school systems, which could result in the loss of thousands of students in 2013 to flight or establishment of separate suburban school systems?

We have fought those wars and made those decisions. The deregulation door has been opened. Everyone is a school reform advocate now. The question is whose idea of reform? Herenton and the other charter applicants deserve a response, yes or no, on the merits. It's probably too late for 2012, but some of them could be in the mix in 2013, the Year of the Big Change.

I would like to see Herenton in the picture, assuming his team can recruit enough students, staff, and suitable buildings, which charter school veterans tell me is a lot harder than you might think. There are few if any universally popular school figures. Michelle Rhee, Kriner Cash, David Pickler, Teach For America, KIPP schools — all have their fans and foes.

My Herenton bias comes partly from personal experience. In the 1970s I taught for three years in an alternative school in Nashville for kids who weren't cutting it. I was, like the current TFA corps, earnest but young and inexperienced. Such modest success as I had was due to small class sizes and a dozen paperback copies of a book called "Manchild in the Promised Land" by Claude Brown that we read aloud, often painfully slow at a rate of five or ten minutes a page, week after week to teach remedial reading. It was about growing up tough and dirty in Harlem, and it spoke to many of my students in a way I could not. I would not have lasted a year under the current teaching standards, but several students learned to read at a sixth or seventh-grade level thanks to Claude Brown. Herenton has lived that story, and I think he can reach some urban students who are not making it in the present system.

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