The Tennessee Legislature is bringing its charter school legislation right down to the wire. With just one more day before lawmakers are set to pack up and leave town, the General Assembly has two outstanding bills that would bring substantive changes to the way the state approves and authorizes charter schools.
One is House Bill 702, the so-called “charter authorizer” bill, that passed the lower chamber Thursday evening but is still awaiting discussion in the state Senate. Sponsored by Germantown Republican Mark White, the legislation formalizes an appeals process by which the State Board of Education can overrule decisions by local school boards who deny applications for new charter schools.
The law would only apply to school systems in counties that have at least one struggling, “priority” school. Currently, five counties, including largely urban Davidson and Shelby, have priority schools. House Democrats, many of whom represent those areas, tried all sorts of tactics to neutralize the legislation, introducing nearly a dozen different amendments Thursday.
Nashville Democrat Bo Mitchell attempted to add one amendment that would have required new, state-approved charters to open within two miles of a failing school, arguing that the rule would allow local school boards to stop charter operation groups from opening schools in affluent neighborhoods where resources were less necessary.
“I don’t think we’re doing anything to deny charter schools in our community,” Mitchell said of Davidson County. “We’re denying out-of-state carpetbaggers who are coming into our city, looking to make their pockets full of green dollars on the backs of our schoolchildren.”
But White and the House GOP supermajority managed to shoot down every one of the amendments Democrats raised and passed the bill by a vote of 62-30.
Meanwhile, the upper chamber approved a Senate Bill 205, Thursday, sponsored by Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham that makes multiple tweaks and cleans up language in the state’s charter school policies.
While not hugely controversial on the surface, Gresham, a Republican from Somerville, added an amendment on the floor that would open the door for public charter programs to contract out the operation of schools to for-profit companies.
The House version of the bill passed earlier in the week but it did not include the for-profit amendment. During discussion on the bill, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley asked sponsor Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, if for-profits would be included and Brooks said that they would not.
The House is set to readdress the measure Friday when lawmakers can decide to adopt Gresham’s amendment or send the bill to a conference committee to hash out the differences.