House Education Committee Approves State-Level Charter School Appeals Panel

Members of the Tennessee House Education Committee began their meeting Tuesday donning silly hats and playfully reading Dr. Seuss aloud with elementary school students. They ended it passing contentious charter school legislation that may significantly impact the learning environment for a rising number of children in the state.

House Bill 702 itself would only make minor changes to the charter school approval process, increasing the number of days  prospective schools have to appeal a local denial of application to the state. However, a more far-reaching amendment added to the bill creates a separate, state-level appeals board, or “authorizer,” with the power to overrule local education agencies on the decision whether to grant charter to a privately run school seeking access to public education funding.

Committee members approved HB702 on a 10-3 vote.

Nine of the “yes” votes on the committee were Republicans, along with Memphis Democrat John DeBerry. Two Republicans and one Democrat voted against the measure. They were committee vice chairman John Forgety, R-Athens, Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, and Joe Pitts, D-Clarksville.

Two members of the committee, Memphis Democrat Lois DeBerry and Nashville Democrat Harold Love, Jr., abstained.

According to bill sponsor Mark White, R-Germantown, all applications from potential charter schools would initially go to locally elected school boards. If approved, oversight of the school would stay in local hands. But denied applicants could appeal to the state authorizer.

Should the state reject a charter applicant’s appeal, the matter would be concluded, he said. If, on the other hand, the state approved an application that an LEA had rejected, that charter school would them be overseen by the state and not the LEA, said White.

White envisions the authorizer as “an independent agency of the state” charged exclusively with approving or denying charter school applicant appeals. The authorizer panel would be made up of three appointees each from the governor, speaker of the House and lieutenant governor. “We will have members suggested from the Tennessee School Board Association, the Tennessee Charter School Association (and) the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents,” Rep. White added.

Creating a state authorizer will help ensure that Tennessee continues to “move forward with education reform,” said White.

He predicted the existence of a state-level mechanism for appealing local charter school application rejections would attract high-quality charter operators to the state.

“All applications of charters must go through the LEAs first,” he said. “But this is where the challenge comes in: Should any LEA fail to do their job to help the state move forward and help with education reform, then what we are doing to this bill is setting up a chartering authority of the state, made up nine members dedicated solely to this task.”

White, who said he use to be a teacher, remarked at one point during the discussion that the present debate in the Legislature is no longer centered on the relative merits of charter schools as a viable or effective alternative to a traditional public school education. Such debates are politically settled issues at the state level in Tennessee, he suggested. “That left the stable two years ago when we were talking about removing the caps off charter schools,” said White.

Supporters of the bill include the Tennessee School Board Association and the Tennessee Charter Schools Association. Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the TCSA told reporters later HB702 will create “an environment where the districts are incentivised to work with the applicants.”

“Our application process has become really political,” Throckmorton said. “This we see as an opportunity to remove the politics and just raise the entire discourse and expectation about quality charter schools.”

Critics of the bill, including Metro Nashville Public Schools and the state’s largest teachers union, argued that a state authorizer will strip local communities of control over what schools they want and would place unfair fiscal burdens on LEAs.

MNPS board member Amy Frogge told committee members there’s an issue of “taxation without representation” inherent in the authorizer concept as it now stands.

“We will have no say-so in monitoring those schools,” said Frogge. “We will not be approving those schools. So basically, it’s an unfunded mandate. Taxpayers will be footing the bill but we will have no power.”

Jim Wrye, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, disputed the idea that charter schools are a promising, proven model for helping solve public education’s historic woes in Tennessee.

“When we talk about charter schools, there are good charter schools, no doubt. And some doing excellent work,” said Wrye. “But the idea that they are an inherent good or better than the public schools that we have is not borne out by evidence.”

Wrye wondered if the authorizer panel “will be able to enforce the basic premise of charter schools, which is autonomy for accountability.”

“My concern, and (TEA’s) concern, is they will not,” he said.

House Bill 702 will move next to the Government Operations Committee. The Senate Education Committee is set to look at their version of the legislation, SB830, on Wednesday. The committee’s chair, Republican Dolores Gresham of Somerville, is the sponsor.

John Klein Wilson and Mark Engler contributed to this story.