The move toward centralized state control took a step forward last week when our big government imposed an unprecedented $3.4 million penalty on an underling government as punishment for an act of defiance.
There was really no choice, explained Gov. Bill Haslam, boss of the big government. You see, the lesser government had refused to follow instructions from its superiors and thus violated a law that he had the Legislature enact just a year or so ago.
If you haven’t followed these developments, which have gotten a lot of attention in Nashville but not so much elsewhere in the state, here’s a summary.
The law in question is a rewrite of Tennessee’s charter schools statute, repealing numerical limits on how many there can be and removing other prior restrictions. One provision says that, if a charter is denied at the local level, the state Board of Education can review the decision. If the state board approves, the local school board is then obliged to approve as well.
Great Hearts Academies, which has successfully launched schools elsewhere, applied for a charter in Nashville. The local board no. The state board said yes. The Nashville board balked.
The Nashville board majority, it seems, viewed the Great Hearts application as flawed because it proposed to operate in a wealthy part of town and incorporated no assurances of diversity in student enrollment, which is mentioned as a goal in the law. In essence, members said, Great Hearts amounted to a private school with exclusive admission requirements that wants to help finance its profit-making plans with government dollars, diverting those dollars from public schools that must take all comers.
These assertions were strongly disputed, but a majority of the board believed them and felt strongly enough about the matter — despite being told by their own lawyer that the law required them to submit to the superior authority — that there was a vote to refuse. Twice.
In refusing, the Nashville school board exploited what was doubtless a bow to local control within the law. It says the lesser government body must do what the big government body says, but does not explicitly say that the big government body can grant the charter outright. Acts of defiance were not anticipated.
Such an outright grant of centralized state control over local education, Haslam told reporters last week, would not have been politically feasible at the time the bill passed in 2010. But after the act of defiance, he said his administration may consider proposing direct state approval of a charter school over local government objections.
As things stand now, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman determined the appropriate punishment would be to withhold $3.4 million of state funding to Nashville schools, which have 81,000 students and a $700 million budget. That’s a month’s worth of state money for what Haslam and Huffman described as “administrative costs,” though Nashville officials noted it actually includes things like utilities, student transportation and maintenance that impact classrooms and students.
So you have children’s education impacted, at least indirectly, in a snit between entities supposedly promoting education.
This is not the first step toward stronger centralized control recently. The most prominent case was also an override of Nashville’s lesser government by the big state government. The Legislature declared void the city’s enactment of an ordinance declaring that those contracting with the city cannot discriminate against employees on the basis of sexual orientation.
But there are lots of other examples. Several bills providing for state override of local zoning ordinances in certain circumstances failed in the past legislative session, the political climate not being quite right.
One that passed says cities, counties and “political subdivisions” of the state cannot ban beekeeping. That law was cited last week by a Spring Hill apiarist told by a homeowners association that his hives must go. There’s now a dispute about whether a homeowners association is a “political subdivision.”
But there’s no dispute about who’s boss over cities and counties, formally designated as “creatures of the state” with no rights beyond what state government grants them. The big government has been pretty liberal about granting authority over the past two or three decades.
But the political climate appears to have changed. At least when the little governments decide something contrary to instructions of the big government guys.