Gov. Bill Haslam’s office is introducing a last-minute rewrite on his pledge to give charter schools greater flexibility just as GOP lawmakers start counting down the days until they adjourn.
The changes would give school districts the power to deny charter applications based on their price tags — assuming they can convince the state treasurer that the cost presents a “substantial negative fiscal impact” that the district cannot absorb.
But exactly how those decisions would be made is still up in the air, admitted Sen. Jamie Woodson, a high-ranking Republican and education reform leader pushing the bill.
“The pure definition of what is substantial financial impact is, I will admit…yet to be determined,” she told the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee shortly before the body voted 8-2 to send the plan to the Senate floor.
Republican leaders in both chambers hope to wrap up the year’s legislative session this weekend, although House Chief Clerk Joe McCord said Thursday lawmakers may need a few more days to finish their business. Either way, the governor’s administration is running out of time to tweak the bill.
The price on Haslam’s original charter school proposal, HB1989, slowed the measure down to a halt in both chambers earlier this session, with it sitting for almost two months in the Senate and a month in the House while Democrats wrangled with Republicans and the Haslam administration over details of the bill.
Critics took issue with every major thrust of the plan, including lifting the 90-school cap on the number of charters throughout the state and allowing the state’s virtual school district in charge of turning around failing schools to OK charter applications.
The administration wouldn’t budge much there, or on Democratic efforts to include specific language mandating that the majority of charter school enrollees be at-risk students who come from under-performing schools, struggle academically or come from low-income families. All those issues stayed put.
But the big issue came down to the price tag, and some Republicans split with their caucus and voiced reservation about the local cost of the school choice legislation.
Under the original version, the proposal would have cost local public school districts about $4.3 million statewide by shifting dollars to the independently run public schools when the expansion gets off the ground in 2013-14. But that total would climb to $25 million by 2022, according to the Fiscal Review committee.
The new version of the bill requires local school districts that want to reject a charter proposal to send an analysis to the state Treasurer detailing their inability to “adjust expenses on a system-wide basis due to the transfer of students into the proposed charter school.”
The school district and charter school applicant would both have five business days to send their own analysis of the figures to the treasurer after the district rejects the charter.
The treasurer’s office, now manned by David Lillard, can consult the Department of Education, the local board of education and the charter applicant in deciding the merits of the rejection. It can also ask for outside experts to review the contested financial data, although the final decision must be made within 30 days.
Even if the treasurer strikes down the local school district’s claims about financial stability, the charter school applicant must still contest the school district’s original charter denial to the state Board of Education within five days of the Treasurer’s decision.
The new proposal would cost the state about $50,000 a year in the event the state treasurer seeks outside help weighing the financial statements. Local expenditures in the school districts would be at least $1 million, according to the fiscal note, though researchers admitted they couldn’t pinpoint a specific number because there are too many unknowns.
According to the new fiscal note:
“While the exact fiscal impact is dependent on multiple unknown factors, it is assumed that the (Local Education Agency) will be able to account for half of the shift through normal system-wide adjustments and the net increase in permissive local expenditures is estimated to exceed $1,000,000 statewide.”
The concession won’t water down the bill, according to Will Cromer, the administration’s policy director. Instead, it creates an method for testing whether school districts really can’t absorb new charter schools.
“It creates the process to make that claim, but there’s also a process to evaluate the claim,” he said.
The charter schools bill passed in the Senate committee Wednesday with Democrats Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, and Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, voting no. Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, was the only Democrat to vote for the bill. In the House, the measure won on a voice vote, although Reps. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, and Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, expressed dissent during committee discussions.
The debate boils down to a philosophical difference about money following the student, said a lobbyist for charter schools — whether parents or school administrators and educational professionals ought to decide where a child can get a publicly-funded education.
The charter school legislation is one of the signature education reform measures Haslam has presented in his first year as governor, along with changes in teacher tenure law, which Haslam has already signed.
Mike Morrow contributed to this report.
Clarification: If the Treasurer disagrees with the local school board’s assertion that opening the charter school would cause undue financial burden, the charter school must still appeal the local school board’s original denial to the state Board of Education, under the proposed amendment.