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Pressure Builds Over State-Local Control of Charter Schools

Republicans who laud government that stays close to the people are finding themselves in a pickle now that a local school board has bucked state law.

Metro Nashville Public Schools’ Board of Education ignored orders by the Tennessee Board of Education to usher the charter school Great Hearts Academies into the district last week — the second such rebuff in a month. The Metro schools board contends that the first of five schools, run by a Phoenix-based charter school operator, would lack diversity and pander to an affluent Nashville neighborhood.

The Great Hearts dispute has exposed Republican leaders to criticism that they espouse local control only when it suits their aims.

“This whole thing just flies in the face of Republican philosophy when you have the big bad state coming down telling the local school board they have to comply with the law,” said Jerry Winters, a lobbyist with the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which has been resistant to the emergence of school choice.

Charter schools have enjoyed favorable treatment at the hands of GOP Gov. Bill Haslam and his education department. The administration’s agenda for reform has included tougher standards for teacher tenure, tying teacher evaluations to test scores and an expansion of charter schools.

Metro schools’ refusal to grant Great Hearts permission to open a school has sparked statewide debate over whether local approval is best. Great Hearts announced that it would not challenge the Metro schools’ decision.

“It’s really been kind of shocking to watch a government openly acknowledge and violate the law,” said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association.

Disgusted by the ongoing feud, Throckmorton and other charter school advocates are pushing for the state to assemble an outside agency to review and approve charter school applications, allowing charter operators to leap-frog over the local school district.

Details on how that system would operate are still in the works.

Throckmorton says local school districts should still be involved with discussions about pending charter schools. But politics are getting in the way of opening quality schools that could find more effective ways to teach children, he said.

Opponents of the idea say locally elected school board members — rather than a handful of appointed officials in Nashville — should decide whether a charter school is the right fit for the district and the community.

“I think people are wanting to make this an example to justify their intent to make a statewide authorizer,” said Lee Harrell, a lobbyist for the Tennessee School Boards Association which is opposed to charter schools skipping over local officials. “Often you hear the best decisions are made on the ground. (State approval) would totally fly in the face of that mentality.”

Several top state officials are staying quiet on the matter, including Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who in August said the state would take “appropriate action” to see to it that Metro schools approved the charter school.

He declined to comment on the latest denial for Great Hearts, although emails obtained by the City Paper indicate he was keenly interested in getting the application approved and has engaged in discussions about the need for a statewide authorizer.

The governor’s office has also been silent on the issue, although officials say they were waiting for Haslam to return from his economic development trip in Japan last week. Prior to Metro schools’ first rejection of the Great Hearts application, Haslam said he saw no need to develop a state panel to approve charter schools.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham has also declined to comment.

But Republican legislative leaders who have repeatedly offered messages about the importance of local control hint that they’d be open to a plan giving the state more power.

“I am extremely dismayed that the Nashville School Board is focused on limiting parental choice and educational opportunity for children,” Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey told TNReport in an email. “It is unfortunate that the board seems mired in the old education politics while the rest of the state is moving forward.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell agreed, calling the decision by MNPS “simply a mistake for our children” and saying the Legislature “will revisit this issue” when they come back in January.

“We believe in local government and local school boards. But when they don’t give opportunities for our children, then that’s a problem,” she said.

Charter schools are privately-owned but publicly-funded. Supporters say they offer more flexibility to innovate and create choice and competition, while detractors say they drain public money and students, leaving traditional public schools with the students hardest to educate.

Charter school performance is generally mixed. Last school year, two charter schools ranked among the best performing institutions in the state, while five other charter schools reflected some of the worst student academic records statewide.

Challenger to State Rep. Joshua Evans has DUI Record

A Capitol Hill lobbyist looking to unseat a rank-and-file House Republican has an arrest on suspicion of drunken driving in his history — a fact that a couple GOP incumbents want to highlight even while a fellow member of their caucus faces trial for DUI himself.

The two legislators are careful to say the run-in with the law shouldn’t disqualify Lee Harrell from being seriously considered in the race against Rep. Joshua Evans for the Robertson County House seat, but firmly add that it’s a fact voters should know.

“I think it’s probably important for voters to have that information and be able to use that in their consideration,” said Evans, a Republican from Greenbrier and small business owner.

Evans is beating back a challenge from Harrell, a lobbyist for the Tennessee School Boards Association, in the 66th District encompassing Robertson County. The August primary election race is one of 21 this year where House Republican incumbents are trying to fend off challengers.

Harrell was arrested Sept. 4, 2010, on drunken driving charges and refusing to submit to a blood alcohol test.

“It was certainly a mistake, but I learned from it. I’ve moved on. I’m a better person because of it,” Harrell told TNReport.

According to the arrest warrant, Harrell was driving 80 miles an hour in a 55 mile-per-hour zone on I-40 in Nashville on a Saturday night and was seen “meandering back and forth in his lane of travel, partly crossing into other lanes.” The report said he had watery, bloodshot eyes, smelled of alcohol and “lacked smooth pursuit” while performing field sobriety tests before refusing a blood-alcohol test.

His DUI charge was reduced to reckless driving. He pleaded guilty to the charge in January 2011, along with violating the implied consent law.

TNReport obtained documents about Harrell’s arrest from Rep. Vance Dennis, a Republican lawyer from Savannah who describes himself as a “good friend” of Evans, and provided the information for “personal” reasons.

“I was just trying to be helpful to the people of his district of Robertson County. To make sure everybody knows everything there is to know about Rep. Evans’ opponent,” he said.

But Dennis wouldn’t go so far as to criticize the plight of Rep. Curry Todd, a Collierville Republican who was arrested in October for DUI, illegal possession of a firearm and refusing a blood-alcohol test. His case has been bound over to a grand jury.

“I’m not going to cast aspersions on anyone for their prior actions, but I think people of the state have a right to know what’s out there and what’s in an individual’s history who’s running,” Dennis said.

Harrell says the leaked details of his DUI arrest prove his opponent isn’t certain of his re-election.

“You see this in politics all the time, and I think it’s just an indication that my opponent is not that confident in his voting record or in his relationships he has in the district, so he wants to point to this first rather than pointing to relevant information or relevant facts,” said Harrell.

Evans says Harrell’s mishap with the law only “recently came to his attention” and says he had nothing to do with making sure those details landed in TNReport’s hands. But he quickly added that he considers himself a proponent of stiffening DUI laws, including those that allow drivers to skip out on blood-alcohol tests.

“An issue like this is really up to the voters,” Evans said when asked whether Todd’s arrest, too, should be highlighted. He said he doesn’t plan on making Harrell’s DUI a part of his campaign.

Lawmakers added several DUI laws to the books this year, including one that would have forced drivers suspected of driving under the influence, like Harrell or Todd, to submit to a blood-alcohol test if compelled by a court order or a search warrant. That law is now in effect. Todd, who was on the floor during much of bill’s debate, left the chamber for the day minutes before lawmakers in the chamber voted.

Another clarifies that people entitled to use a drug that impairs a operating heavy machinery cannot use that as a defense against a DUI charge. That law kicks in July 1.

Prominent Education Lobbyist Jumps Into GOP House Primary Race

The lobbyist for the Tennessee School Boards Association, who played a central role in last year’s GOP-driven education reforms, is challenging an incumbent in this year’s Republican primary election.

Lee Harrell of White House will square off against state Rep. Joshua Evans, a two-term Republican from Greenbrier and small business owner. The district follows the lines of Robertson County north of Nashville. There are no Democratic candidates in the race so the winner in the primary will go on to represent District 66.

“Anytime you go against someone who is there, who is established, who has the name recognition, it’s an uphill battle,” said Harrell, who’ll continue to lobby the Legislature for the TSBA this session until lawmakers head back to their districts in the next few weeks.

“I certainly don’t expect anyone in the caucus to come out publicly and support me or to go against an incumbent. I’ve accepted that,” he said.

Harrell was a key combatant on a highly partisan political battlefield last year as the newly empowered GOP majority drove into law several major education reforms. A central element of the overhaul gutted the power of the teacher unions by rescinding a 1970s-era law that mandated elected school board officials engage in binding collective bargaining negotiations with local chapters of the Tennessee Education Association in order to hammer out teacher contracts.

Harrell said that while he regards education as his strong suit, he’s a well-rounded candidate and a Capitol insider, able to effectively communicate and negotiate across party lines and with people from various backgrounds and interests.

“I know all the players, the lobbyists, staffers, the legislators,” Harrell said. “I feel like with that background at this point in my life, I’m at a situation where I can stop, run for office, use my background, use those relationships and connections to give back to the people of Robertson County.”

The primary election will be held Aug. 2.

TN School Boards Assn. Lobbyist Announces Candidacy for Legislature

Press release from Lee Harrell, Candidate for House District 66; April 5, 2012:

WHITE HOUSE—Lee Harrell has qualified to challenge Joshua Evans for the Republican nomination in House District 66. Harrell currently works for the Tennessee School Boards Association as the Director of Government and Labor Relations and resides in White House.

“I am running for this seat because the voters of Robertson County deserve a state representative who is accessible, hardworking, and dependable. As state representative, I will continue my passion for improving education in Tennessee. A strong system of public education will attract industry, generate jobs, and promote economic development,” said Harrell.

“Also, as a Republican, I firmly believe in a smaller, less intrusive government. Washington, D.C. is out of control with its wasteful spending and reckless, unconstitutional mandates, and we need strong leaders in our state legislature to stand up to these bureaucrats,” he added.

Harrell has dedicated much of his career to the issue of public education. Before working for the Tennessee School Boards Association, he served as a research analyst for the State Senate Education Committee. He worked with the committee through the implementation of BEP 2.0, charter school reforms, expansion of lottery scholarships, and several other educational initiatives. With TSBA, he has worked with the General Assembly and other stakeholders in securing Tennessee’s Race to the Top Grant as well as endorsing legislation to end collective bargaining.

Haslam Cool to State ‘Authorizer’ for Charter Schools

Gov. Bill Haslam led the movement this year to take the shackles off Tennessee charter schools so they can play a bigger role in education, but he says he’s as yet unwilling to grant them their next wish — a statewide board to OK their applications.

Charter school advocates argue they’d rather have the state or some independent body OK their applications instead of local school boards, which they see as too hesitant to embrace nontraditional education initiatives.

But Haslam said he won’t give away powers now reserved for local school districts to anyone else — at least until he can gauge how successful his developing charter school reforms turn out.

“I’m comfortable with what we’ve put in place. Let’s see how this works for a year or two before we do anything else,” the governor said.

Lawmakers this year removed the caps limiting the number of charter schools operating in the state and opened up enrollment to any student who wants to attend. Critics of charter-school expansion, like Jerry Winters, executive director of Tennessee’s largest teachers union, charge that the state is essentially writing charters a “blank check” to do what they want.

Officials also gave the state’s Achievement School District the power to approve charters in areas serving students who attend the state’s 13 lowest-performing schools.

But leaders in the charter school community, who met on Capitol Hill Friday, want more. They say a state-level process for “authorizing” or approving charters will create the operational stability the current system lacks. Applicants now who are denied locally can appeal the decision to the state Board of Education.

“We have a number of districts that don’t like charter schools but they have applications,” said Matt Throckmorton, who heads up the Tennessee Charter School Association. “It’s a situation where if we had a statewide authorizer, we could have a very consistent high-standard, high-quality application process, and therefore the applicants that are approved in those communities will be good charter schools and will be accepted much quicker.”

About a dozen charter school leaders rallied around that idea, although final details of what the association will pitch next legislative session will be worked out by the end of the year.

Sister Sandra Smithson of the Smithson-Craighead Academy in Nashville made it clear the authority shouldn’t rest with those in charge of failing schools.

“We need multiple authorizers, or at least one or two other choices as possibilities, and people with proven track records in education for bringing about substantive change,” she said. “I do have a problem trusting myself to a system that doesn’t work.”

The decision to authorize charter schools should stay within the district, Lee Harrell, a lobbyist with the Tennessee School Boards Association, told TNReport. He said he’s afraid the discussion is beginning to pin one type of school against the other.

“I fear we would abandon the mentality of traditional schools and charter schools working together,” said Harrell.

The Volunteer State is home to 41 operating charter schools with four others preparing to launch next school year.

Mike Morrow contributed to this report.

House, Senate Republicans Working Toward Anti-Collective Bargaining Compromise

House GOP leaders are still laboring over the latest Senate addition to the collective bargaining repeal this week and say they want to put their own fingerprint on the plan before advancing the legislation.

Publicly at least, the House is taking a break from collective bargaining debates for the rest of the month as they huddle over versions of the plan to repeal teachers unions’ power to negotiate labor contracts.

“We’re looking at ways to take the Senate amendment, which is a good first step, and add a little bit of our own thoughts to it,” said House Speaker Beth Harwell, who previously sided with a version of the bill that would have kept a limited amount of collective bargaining intact.

The amendment to SB113 was crafted by Sen. Jack Johnson, a Franklin Republican who has championed a strict repeal of collective bargaining powers among Tennessee teachers despite hesitance from some House Republicans.

He plans to put the measure before the full Senate Thursday, despite whatever changes House Republicans have in the works.

“I’m open to about anything as long as it’s a complete repeal of the negotiations act from ‘78, and as long as it allows for no collective bargaining union-negotiated contracts whatsoever, and that it does not exclude any teacher or teacher organization from having input with the school board,” said Johnson, who added he’s optimistic he’ll have enough votes in the House and Senate.

Harwell, the most powerful Republican in the House, said she likes Johnson’s addition of requiring teachers’ involvement and input but said “bottom floor” issues like merit and differential pay shouldn’t even be a topic of debate.

“Another example would be the evaluation process. That’s not subject to whether teachers like it or not. We need to have evaluations in place,” Harwell told TNReport.

The end result will likely be a combination of the House and Senate versions, Harwell said. When asked for specifics, she added that she and sponsor Debra Maggart, the House GOP’s caucus chairwoman from Hendersonville, are still hammering out ideas for their chamber’s amendments. Those issues would be woven into the Senate amendment mandating school boards adopt policies outlining how they hammer out labor issues, Maggart said.

The Tennessee Education Association, which has doggedly fought against any change in the collective bargaining law, opposes all those amendments on the table but doesn’t have much leverage to fight them.

Their allies, mostly Democrats, are outnumbered in both chambers. The TEA’s last line of defense is hoping there are enough Republicans in the House unwilling to go along with a full repeal.

The Tennessee School Boards Association, the original architect of the collective bargaining ban, is OK with the latest rewrite, which would require them to develop public policy manuals dictating how they set policy on issues like pay, benefits, leaves of absence, working conditions and student discipline, according to the group’s lobbyist.

“We’re not trying to catch anybody off guard. We’re not trying to go around or sneak around with anybody. We want all the teachers to know what we expect of them, what they should expect of us,” said Lee Harrell, TSBA’s lobbyist at the Capitol.

The problem with the current system, said Harrell, is that teachers who don’t join the union now have no voice in the future of their work contracts. Union representatives don’t represent all teachers in a district, he said.

“If they want the process going exactly the way it is now, then it will. They’ll still have their association reps that will express their opinions, express their concerns for them,” Harrell said.

“However, if a system is 50 percent TEA and 50 percent non, that’s 50 percent of the teachers who are automatically excluded from those conversations. That’s what we’re trying to get around,” he said.

The House version of the bill is scheduled for a vote in the House Finance committee on Tuesday, May 3.

TEA Mulling Haslam’s Tenure Reform Proposal

Tennessee’s largest teachers union is ready to do its homework on Gov. Bill Haslam’s education reform plan.

But regardless of the details of the governor’s legislation, union leadership sees a lot in other bills that it says have nothing to do with teaching children.

Al Mance, executive director of the Tennessee Education Association, said Thursday his organization wants to give Haslam’s education proposals a good, close look, then stands ready to talk.

“I think his proposal is going to be complex enough that we’re going to need to get it and analyze it to see exactly what he’s proposing, and then we’d like to talk to them before we take an official organization position on it,” Mance said. “That is particularly true with anything having to do with tenure.”

Haslam delivered his anticipated tenure-adjusting proposal to the legislature Thursday as the highlight of a package that includes lifting current limits on charter schools in the state. Haslam wants to change the probationary time for teacher tenure from three years to five years.

Mance said the TEA will probably have a detailed response by early next week.

Haslam’s tinkering with the tenure system followed the first real shot in Republican lawmakers’ battle with teachers’ union supporters a day earlier, with a Senate committee voting Wednesday to advance a bill wiping away collective bargaining for teachers. The week was a potent one-two punch to the union. The union bargaining issue has stirred the most passion thus far.

“We’ve got 52,000 members across the state who aren’t happy,” Mance said. “This is devastating for some of them. Keep in mind almost 90 percent of all teachers are covered by negotiated contracts. A lot of teachers have lived during the period when we didn’t have them.

“What negotiation does is provide an orderly and structured way for you to sit down with the school system and talk about those problems and issues that may get in the way of actually improving schools.”

Mance has heard some of the information going around that says non-bargaining local educators make an average $130 a year more than teachers who work under collectively bargained contracts. But, he said, that is taking into account only salary, not both salary and benefits.

He said bargaining groups of teachers almost always exceed what nonbargaining local organizations receive in health insurance.

“If they repeal the bargaining law, they have no opportunity to sit down in an orderly way and have input into the education and school system,” Mance said. “They will be back to a time when teachers were expected to be seen and not heard, and I don’t think that’s something teachers are going to be able to tolerate ever again.

“I don’t think most school boards want that.”

The Tennessee School Boards Association says indeed it does not. But that organization rejects the notion that such an outcome is likely or would, for that matter, be tolerated by the voters who elect local citizens to the boards.

“It serves the best interest of everyone in the system, especially the school board and the teachers, to have a collaborative relationship,” said Lee Harrell, a lobbyist for the TSBA, which is pushing the anti-collective bargaining bill. “School board members are elected, and they have to meet certain standards, and they have to have highly qualified teachers — and they have to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers. It serves them absolutely no good and no interest to shut the teachers out.”

Harrell, who made his remarks before the Senate Education Committee this week, said the 45 school districts in Tennessee that aren’t mandated to collectively bargain with unions — 91 districts are — have an “open relationship” that results in constructive discussions with teachers on the full range of education-related issues.

“They want to hear directly from teachers in the classrooms,” Harrell said of school board members.

Mance said the existence of mandatory collective bargaining in one system can have an effect on a neighboring system, like the Memphis city schools compared to Shelby County schools.

“Some of the benefits in Shelby County are what they are because Memphis is right next door, and Memphis negotiates,” Mance said. “In order to establish and maintain some kind of parity it means that Shelby County has to improve its benefits but also improve teacher involvement in decision-making.

“That is as important to most teachers as the salaries and benefits.”

Mance expressed concern about a flurry of bills in the Legislature he says don’t directly affect education. They include the mandatory collectively bargaining issue, a bill doing away with TEA’s members selecting people for the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System board of trustees and a bill to remove a payroll dues deduction for any employee organization that participates in politics.

“There are a number of bills around, and none of them have anything to do with support of teaching in the classroom or support for education reform that have any possibility of improving the education of Tennessee boys and girls,” he said.