By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As the 108th Tennessee General Assembly draws to a close, state lawmakers are hoping to push through education proposals that include creating a state panel to authorize charter schools for five counties and a measure that would clear the way for cities to begin forming municipal school systems.
The session, which lawmakers are trying to wrap up this month, began with several proposals aimed at continuing education reform in Tennessee. They included Gov. Bill Haslam’s initiative to create a school voucher program and a so-called parent trigger measure that would allow parents to decide the fate of a struggling school.
Both of those proposals have failed.
However, the charter school proposal could be heading to the governor soon for his consideration. The bill is waiting to be scheduled for a vote by the full House, and the Senate Finance Committee is expected to take up a companion bill on Monday.
The panel would be able to overrule local school board decisions on charter applications in the lowest-performing school districts. Currently, only five counties would be affected, but they include more than 330,000 students in the state’s four largest cities: Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Shelby. Hardeman County also would be affected.
Currently, local school boards decide whether to authorize a charter application. There are 48 charters operating in Tennessee.
The bill would allow charter applicants rejected in the five counties to appeal to the nine-member panel that would be appointed by the governor and speakers of the House and Senate.
The Senate version of the bill was delayed in the Senate Finance Committee last week after members expressed concern that the panel wouldn’t have any oversight. Also questioned was the nearly $240,000 price tag to create the panel, including a little over $100,000 to pay an executive director.
The proposal advancing in the House would make the panel a part of the state Department of Education administratively, but its activities would be independent.
The amended bill also gives an applicant approved by the panel 30 days to return to the school district if the two can reach an agreement.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville said oversight is important and he believes the measure will pass the Senate Finance Committee if such an amendment is added.
“I think the panel should be answerable to an identifiable department,” he said.
The push for a charter school authorizer gained momentum in the aftermath of a fight over Nashville’s refusal to accept the application of Phoenix-based Great Hearts Academies despite being ordered to by the state Board of Education last year. Some feared the school was being located on the west side of Nashville to cater to affluent, white families who live nearby.
When the Nashville school board refused to accept Great Hearts, the Department of Education withheld $3.4 million in state funding.
According to the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, there were about 20 charter school appeals last year.
Another bill would allow for-profit charter schools in Tennessee. State law currently requires all charter schools and any management companies they might hire to have nonprofit status.
The measure could be attached to a charter school omnibus bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Harry Brooks. The Knoxville Republican said there’s still discussion about the measure and he’s unsure if it will be added to the version of his bill.
However, he said the overall proposal is intended to do a number of things, such as encourage the conversion of certain buildings into charter schools and promote “better communication between the school districts and charter organizations.”
Norris is the sponsor of the new school systems proposal, which is scheduled to be heard on both the Senate and House floors Monday.
The proposal would lift a 1998 ban that forbids municipalities from starting their own school systems.
The measure would benefit six Memphis suburbs seeking to bypass a merger of the Shelby County and Memphis school districts and run their own schools.
The suburbs voted in August to create their own districts after the Legislature passed a narrowly crafted bill that allowed it.
Shelby County officials argued in court that the law violated the Tennessee Constitution because it applied to only one county. A federal judge agreed and struck it down.
Norris said the ban stands in the way of education reform.
“We have 13 or 14 municipal systems that were in existence at the time this ban was put in place and they have outperformed most other systems in the state,” he said. “They’re proof positive that smaller and perhaps more neighborhood-oriented schools work better. So it’s time to do away with that. I think most members agree it’s an impediment to innovation and reform.”
Memphis was one of the cities that had its own school system, but it decided to dissolve the system and turn education over to the Shelby County system. The suburbs began looking to create their own systems after the merger of the mostly black Memphis schools and the mostly white Shelby County schools became inevitable.
Another education-related initiative is an administrative proposal to tighten enrollment requirements at privately run online schools. The measure passed the Senate 27-2 last month and is waiting to be scheduled for a vote on the House floor.
The proposal, also guided by Norris, would allow beginning online schools to start with an enrollment of 1,500 and continue to expand as long as they meet performance requirements. If they fail to do so for three consecutive years, then the state education commissioner can cap enrollment, or direct the local school board to close it.
Haslam’s initial proposal sought to cap online school enrollment at 5,000.
Critics have pushed for capping enrollment following the low performance of Tennessee Virtual Academy, the state’s only privately operated virtual school.