Tennessee governor appoints members of new state charter school commission

Gov. Bill Lee named nine Tennesseans Monday to serve on a new commission overseeing charter schools across the state.

They include Terence Patterson, who last year was named director of the most prominent philanthropic education fund in Memphis; Wendy Tucker, who currently serves on the State Board of Education; and former state Rep. Eddie Smith, a Knoxville Republican who lost his bid to return to the House last fall.

Lee also announced three appointments to the state Board of Education, including the leader of the large private school near Nashville where the governor’s children attended and first lady Maria Lee was once a teacher.

The charter school commission was created this spring by lawmakers at Lee’s urging, and appointments were among the most highly anticipated from the Republican governor, a charter school proponent who took office in January. Beginning in January of 2021, its members will oversee the state’s growing charter school sector, including appeals when local school boards reject charter applications. 

By law, the commission must include three members from each of the state’s three grand divisions, and a majority must reside in a county where a charter school currently operates. Appointees who still must be confirmed by the legislature are:

  • Tom Griscom, of Hamilton County, a former director of White House communications under President Ronald Reagan, long-time aide to the late U.S. Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, and former executive editor and publisher of the Times Free Press in Chattanooga
  • David Hanson, of Davidson County, is managing partner of Hillgreen, a private investment firm, and serves on the board for Teach for America and Nashville-based charter network Valor Collegiate Academies. 
  • Alan Levine, of Washington County in East Tennessee, CEO of Ballad Health and a one-time adviser to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
  • Terence Patterson, of Shelby County, is the CEO of the Memphis Education Fund and former head of the Downtown Memphis Commission. He was also the chief of staff for Chicago Public Schools, later becoming the director of the Office of New Schools in Chicago, where he managed 113 new charter schools.
  • Mary Pierce, of Davidson County, was a leading charter school advocate during her one term as a school board member with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. (Update: Pierce was not confirmed by the legislature in 2020, leaving this seat open.)
  • Christine Richards, of Shelby County, a former general counsel for FedEx
  • Derwin Sisnett, of Shelby County, co-founded Gestalt Community Schools, a Memphis-based charter school network. He is the founder and managing partner of Maslow Development Inc., a nonprofit organization that develops communities around high performing schools.
  • Eddie Smith of Knox County, is a Republican who served in the Tennessee House of Representatives from 2014 until 2018, when he was ousted by Democrat Gloria Johnson.
  • Wendy Tucker, of Williamson County, is an attorney and adjunct professor at Vanderbilt School of Law. A member of the state Board of Education since 2014, she has been an advocate of children with special needs.

The commission eventually will take charter oversight away from the state Board of Education, which has had that responsibility since Tennessee opened the door to the publicly funded, independently operated schools under a 2002 law. Lee argued that the state needs a single group focused solely on ensuring that high-quality charter schools can open and ineffective ones are closed.

Tennessee has 112 charter schools serving 38,000 students, mostly in Memphis, where numerous low-performing charter schools have been shuttered. Meanwhile, Nashville’s school board has had intense skirmishes about efforts to expand the sector there.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat from Memphis, said Monday that she was “cautiously optimistic” about the new commission.

“I hope these members will do their best to respect the wishes of local education authorities but also to make sure we have fairness across the state in our charter appeals process,” Akbari said. “The state Board was very reserved and thoughtful before turning over any decision by a local school board.”

The appointments were among more than 100 Tennesseans named Monday by Lee to some 40 key boards and agencies.

Among the slate of names were three significant appointments to the Tennessee State Board of Education, the 11-member body that makes statewide policies ranging from school bus safety to teacher licensing requirements to rules for Lee’s new education voucher program:

  • Lillian Hartgrove, who became chairperson of the state Board in January of 2018, was reappointed to represent the 6th Congressional District. She is a vice president for the Cookeville-Putnam County Chamber of Commerce and the Highlands Economic Partnership, which focuses on education and workforce preparedness initiatives for the Upper Cumberland region.
  • Larry Jensen, of Shelby County, is president and CEO of Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real estate group and is appointed to represent the 8th Congressional District.
  • Nate Morrow, of Williamson County, is the head of Christ Presbyterian Academy, a private Christian school near Brentwood with more than 1,200 students. If confirmed by the legislature, Morrow would represent the 7th Congressional District and replace Tucker.