A House committee voted Tuesday to create a new nine-member board and give it authority to override local school boards statewide in deciding where charter schools can be established.
The bill approved by the House Education Committee (HB702) drew strident criticism from some Democrats. House Democratic Chairman Mike Turner said the new board would be “a death panel for public schools” and Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, called said the vote is “the most extraordinary power grab I’ve ever seen in the Legislature.”
A version of the bill approved earlier in subcommittee would have given override authority on establishing schools to the existing State Board of Education and would have applied only in Shelby and Davidson counteis. The revised measure applies statewide – “so we’re not singling anyone out,” said sponsor Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis – and gives charter approval authority to a new panel.
The new panel would have nine members – three each appointed by the governor, the speaker of the House and the speaker of the Senate. If it approved a charter school over objections of a local school board, the local school system would still have to provide funding to the charter operation.
Democrats pushed to add a provision declaring that no more than 10 percent of a school system’s budget could be deterred to charter schools, but the Republican majority rejected that idea. In Nashville, critics said a 10 percent cap would have meant $70 million diverted from public schools.
The bill grows out of a controversy in Nashville last year after the Metro Nashville School Board rejected an application from a charter school, then refused to honor a State Board of Education call to reverse its decision. House Speaker Beth Harwell, whose district would have been home to the rejected school, has been a lead advocate of creating a “state authorizer” for charter schools.
The bill was approved by the House Education Committee 9-3. The no votes came from Republican Reps. Jim Coley of Bartlett and John Forgety of Athens – both saying they objected to the idea of an unelected board overruling elected school boards – and Democratic Rep. Joe Pitts of Clarksville. Two other Democrats on the panel abstained.
White said the bill furthers the goal of education reform. With current law allowing local school systems to reject an application, he said, Tennessee is “challenged in attracting the best charters.” The statewide authorizer can now step in, he said, when a local education agency “fails to do their job to help the state move forward with education reform.”
The bill now goes to the House Finance Committee, a necessary step because the new state board is projected to cost $239,000 to establish and operate in its first year.
Turner said the bill opens the door to an unlimited number of charter schools draining away dollars from public schools, which are mandated to provide an education and may be forced to seek a tax increase to cover costs.
“This amounts to nothing more than an unfunded mandate which will blow a hole in local budgets, potentially forcing tax increases to pay for charter schools that weren’t good enough to pass local scrutiny,” Turner said.