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Charter School Authorizer Keeps Moving in House, Snagged Up in Senate

Fits-and-starts all year for education reform legislation; Fate uncertain in session’s waning days

A bill that would create an independent state government authorizer for charter schools in certain parts of Tennessee scored another victory in the state House Wednesday, clearing the chamber’s Finance, Ways & Means Committee on a voice vote.

After undergoing several tweaks as it moved through the committee system, the version of House Bill 702 that passed Wednesday would put in place a governor-and-legislature-appointed panel with the power to override Local Education Agencies who deny charter school applications in counties that have at least one designated “priority school.”

There are currently 83 such schools in the state in five different counties.

House Democrats, who have consistently opposed the proposed charter authorizer, raised several concerns to Republican sponsor Mark White during discussion on the bill including infringement of local control and the fiscal implications for school districts.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley introduced an amendment that would have capped the dollar amount LEA’s would be forced to pay to support state-authorized schools but it was quickly shot down by the majority-Republican committee.

Nashville Democrat Gary Odom subsequently took issue, arguing that the committee was ignoring their duty to consider all financial implications of the measure.

“This appeals mechanism has the opportunity to impact, financially, school systems because they’re going to be mandated to turn over funding to charter schools,” Odom said. “This committee is chorred with dealing with fiscal impact on state governments as well as local governments…we just voted down an amendment that was going to try to cap local government expenditures, as part of their operating costs, on charter schools…This is an unfunded mandate.”

But Committee Chairman Charles Michael Sargent, R-Franklin promptly shut down discussion, saying “I would have a response to that but I’m not getting into a running debate.”

While it was unlikely that the bill would have faced difficulty on the House side, the fate of its Senate companion is less clear. After facing tough questions from fellow Republicans on the Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee Tuesday, sponsor Dolores Gresham of Somerville pulled the bill to the bottom of the agenda and it has yet to resurface.

TNReport was unable to reach Gresham for comment.

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