AG says TN Charter School law OK under state constitution

Setting up a case of dueling legal opinions, state Attorney General Robert Cooper says the Tennessee law that allows charter schools to operate here doesn’t impose financial burdens on local school districts in violation of the state constitution, reports The Tennessean.

That’s an opposite conclusion to one reached by a Metro Nashville Public Schools attorney, who opined last month that the state’s failure to offset such costs is unconstitutional.

Its release, and distribution to school board members, set off a fierce debate over the cost of charters and hinted at the possibility of future litigation. It also prompted state House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, a charter supporter who helped draft the decade-old law, and charter critic Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, to ask the state’s top attorney for his view.

Cooper, in an opinion issued Monday, defended the constitutionality of the 2002 law that set the funding mechanism for publicly financed, privately led charters.

“On its face, the Charter Schools Act does not directly or expressly require the expenditure of extra funds beyond what a [local school district] is already spending on education,” Cooper wrote in a six-page opinion. (Note: Full opinion is HERE.)

A section of the Tennessee Constitution says that no law shall impose “increased expenditure requirements on cities or counties” unless the Tennessee General Assembly ensures that the state shares those costs.

MNPS officials have argued the exit of students from traditional schools to charters hasn’t reduced the costs of maintaining schools they leave. Washington, D.C., attorney John Borkowski, hired by MNPS, said the state has failed to share in those costs, in his opinion.

In coming to a different conclusion, Cooper referenced the state’s Basic Education Program funding formula for all public schools. He said even in the event there are increased financial burdens to local districts, the BEP is “clearly more than sufficient to meet the level” required by the state constitution.