Tennessee charter school bill advances in two key legislative committees

A proposal to create a new Tennessee charter school commission cleared two key legislative committees Wednesday as Gov. Bill Lee seeks a way to open more high-quality charter schools and close low-performing ones.

The House Education Committee voted 13-9 for the bill, while the Senate education panel unanimously approved the measure. The state now has 116 charters, which are publicly funded but independently operated schools, mostly in Memphis and Nashville.

Unlike the Republican governor’s original legislation that would have let charter management organizations bypass local school boards to open new schools, Lee’s administration scaled down its ask to merely create a new state entity that would hear appeals of charter applications denied by local districts.

The nine members of the commission would be appointed by the governor and would take over the responsibility from the Tennessee State Board of Education. Sponsors of the legislation said the state board was never designed for such a task.

“Really nothing changes from what we’re doing now other than we’re moving from the state board to a commission that … will be built around where we can look at best practices moving forward,” said Rep. Mark White, a Republican from Memphis who chairs the House panel and is carrying the bill for the governor.

The votes advance the governor’s charter school initiative, but his administration’s decision to back off of its original proposal also represents a major concession. The bill now goes to the government operations committees of both chambers.

Lee said the revised plan, while significantly dialed back, would still move the state toward higher-quality charter schools.

“We’re getting a bill that’s going to serve particularly those low-income students that are in those least-performing schools. That’s the goal,” Lee told reporters.

Rep. Tom Leatherwood, who voted against the proposal last week in a House subcommittee, switched his vote to support the measure in the full committee.

“I was concerned about [local school boards] being bypassed with the original bill. I do appreciate the governor, the administration, the department working to address those concerns,” said the Republican from Arlington.

Senators passed the measure with little discussion, but the House committee’s split decision came after more than an hour of robust debate earlier in the day.

Some representatives complained that they didn’t have enough time to study sweeping revisions to the original bill in a 38-page amendment delivered on the eve of the vote.

“I’m not philosophically opposed to charter schools … [but] I don’t like rushing legislation,” said Rep. Mark Cochran, a Republican from Englewood, who voted against the bill. “I’m not a fan of passing something and seeing what’s in it later. We’ve rolled far less important things for a week.”

Members questioned how the commissioners would be chosen, what rules and policies they would follow in charter appeals, how the new body and its state-run district would be funded, and provisions about school facilities.

Rep. Jason Hodges, a Clarksville Democrat, said the legislation cracks open the door for the state to start opening charter schools in any district, not just those in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson with schools in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, as a 2014 state law currently provides. That’s because the commission would have the power to authorize new charter schools if it overturns a local board’s denial from any district that still refuses to comply.

“The district no longer has to have a ‘priority’ school with this new bill in order for the commission to overrule the school board,” Hodges told Chalkbeat later. “That’s the worst part of the bill. My district has a really good school system, and that’s now going to be jeopardized because, as charter schools come in, they’re going to take resources from our good public schools.”

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Democrat from Memphis, echoed that concern, albeit with sarcasm.

“The one thing that I do like about this bill is the fact that now everybody gets a taste of the charter medicine across the state,” said Parkinson, turning and pointing to other committee members. “So you get a charter, and you get a charter, and you get a charter. [Rep.] Debra Moody, you get a charter. Everybody gets an opportunity to feel what we’ve been feeling in Shelby County.”

Several representatives questioned why a new entity is needed, especially since the state board has, for the most part, shown deference to local school boards by denying 18 out of 21 appeals since 2014.

Elizabeth Fiveash, assistant state education commissioner for legislative affairs, said the new commission could focus on charter schools, while the state board also must manage academic standards, educator licensure, and an array of policies that affect all districts. In addition, the board has become its own state-run school district, overseeing two Nashville charter schools and one in Memphis that opened after state board members overruled local decisions on those applications.

“It’s an unusual structure that’s in place that is not sustainable long term,” she said.

Nathan James, who handles legislative affairs for the state board, said his board does not interpret the proposed shift to a new commission as a slam on its charter school work. He said his agency has been in talks with Lee’s administration about its growing workload with a staff of 12.

“We have done our level best to be the little agency that could,” James said. “When [the administration] tells you it’s national best practices to have standalone commission, they’re telling you the truth.”

In the Senate committee, Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat from Memphis, said she would support creating a new commission, as long as its membership is diverse geographically and racially and gives experienced educators a seat at the table.

“I think that there was an inherent conflict with the state board being an authorizer because of the rigorous work that they do related to standards and also related to schools in general. So I think establishing a commission is a good idea,” she said.

This story has been updated. Below is the amended bill that advanced on Wednesday.