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Guv’s Charter School Bill Met With Initial Skepticism

Legislation that would blow the cap off the number of charter schools and pave the way for a handful of the governor’s education reforms to alternative education was aired at a hearing for the first time Wednesday.

The plan, HB1989, drew resistance from members on both sides of the aisle in the House Education Subcommittee, foreshadowing possible resistance as the bill moves through committees.

“The whole point of this legislation is just to create more flexibility and make this an option in more places,” Will Cromer, director of policy and research for Gov. Bill Haslam, told members of the subcommittee Wednesday.

Charter school reform is one of three prongs to what Haslam administration officials have referred to as the governor’s “small legislative package,” which also makes it more difficult for teachers to earn and keep tenure and installs caps on non-damage jury awards through tort reform. All of those issues, Haslam says, will help spur job growth.

Most members of the committee appeared sympathetic to Haslam’s three-aspect plan to open charter school enrollment to all students, allow charters to pitch new schools to a state-run school district instead of local school boards, and lift the 90-school limit on the number of charters statewide.

But Rep. Joe Pitts, a Democrat from Clarksville, worried that the measure would give the state’s achievement school district a back-door method of turning the state’s failing schools into charter schools, which he opposes. Rep. Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett, questioned the wisdom of taking public dollars away from traditional public schools to fund schools operated by private organizations, a concern often raised by teacher-union members critical of charter schools.

Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh suggested that the expansion would remove too much local control.

The committee plans to take up the bill, along with up to a dozen others pertaining to charter schools, again for debate and a vote next week. The Senate has not yet taken up the legislation.

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