Haslam’s Charter School Bill Hits Speed Bump

Charter schools reform just got complicated.

After relatively easy passage in a key Senate committee, Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to lift the cap on charter schools and open up enrollment to all students continued to get snarled up in the House Education subcommittee Wednesday.

House Democrats fought for nearly two hours to block, amend and delay the charter school bill, saying it represented everything from an “unfunded mandate” on local school districts to an avenue for charters schools to “cherry-pick” students.

“We’re concerned about the charter schools and the way this bill is written in that they can go and cherry-pick the students that they want to bring into these charter schools and or the teachers that they would like to get in the charter schools,” said Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, former speaker and a leading Democrat challenging the bill. “We don’t want that to happen to the detriment of our public schools as they are right now.”

The Education Subcommittee ultimately delayed a vote on the bill for the second time this month, giving Democrats additional time to review the measure. But House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery said he’s confident the bill will pass as is next week.

“We’re going to work with them, and try to get them satisfied on some questions they’ve got, and then next week we’ll vote it out of there,” the Sevierville Republican told TNReport.

The governor’s bill, HB1989, is key on his list of legislative priorities. It would lift the 90-school cap on charter schools and open up enrollment to all students. It would allow the state’s yet-to-be-formed “Achievement School District” to OK certain charter school applications.

Numerically outmatched Democrats on the committee took issue with several facets of the governor’s bill, including eliminating the cap, determining how charter schools choose their students and the cost of expanding charter schools.

According to the bill’s price tag, local school districts would lose out on as much as $4 million in the 2012-13 school year as the charter school expansion takes hold and education dollars follow students to their new schools. That amount could climb to $24 million in the decade after that.

“We already have school choice for those who have the money to buy a house in another school district,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, who favors the bill. “So there’s already a cost that’s occurring similar to these numbers because we have a type of school choice.”

The debate ensued after Haslam’s administration explained details of an amended version of the charter school bill that tinkers with language detailing how some schools are formed.

The initial version of Haslam’s charter school legislation led some lawmakers and interest groups to believe it would allow the Achievement School District to authorize any applying charter school in the state, said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Charter School Association. That system would have created an avenue for proposed schools facing opposition from their local school district to go over the school board’s head and apply directly to the state to open a charter school.

But that was not their intent, according to administration officials.

The new language tinkers with the role the state’s Achievement School District which came out of last year’s education reforms that qualified the state to win a $500 million Race to the Top education grant. Under Haslam’s bill, the Achievement district could only OK charter school applications for under-performing schools that are slated for a state takeover, a task now resting solely on the shoulders of local school districts.

The changes also include requiring the state Board of Education to explain why it denies any appeals of rejected charter school applications.

The alterations were made to ease concerns from Democrats and other education interest groups, according to the governor’s administration. Republicans seemed uninterested in amending the bill further.

“For us to make this so political that we can’t make the changes that we need to make to make this bill better, it bothers me,” said Rep. Lois DeBerry, a high-ranking House Democrat.

The charter school proposal won the Senate Education Committee’s approval along partisan lines earlier Wednesday with Democratic Sen. Reginald Tate of Memphis voting in favor with Republicans.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, lawmakers advanced another education bill. Legislation curbing teachers unions’ ability to collectively bargain labor negotiations squeaked by the House Budget Subcommittee Wednesday — in fact needing GOP Speaker Beth Harwell to cast a tie-breaking vote — and now moves to the full committee.

A competing version of the bill would completely eliminate labor unions’ leverage to negotiate labor contracts but awaits a vote on the Senate floor.