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Contentious Charter School Issues Still Unresolved as Session Draws to Close

Many among the Tennessee Legislature’s Republican supermajority believe the more charter schools, the better — particularly in areas served by poorly performing traditional public schools. But things are not going smoothly in the waning days of the legislative session for a GOP-backed effort to circumvent local school boards resistant to that vision.

Legislation has been proposed to create a state-appointed board with the power to overrule local education agencies that deny new charter schools. The lower-chamber version of the charter “authorizer” legislation, House Bill 702 carried by Memphis Republican Mark White, has had relatively smooth sailing through the committee process. But its upper-chamber counterpart has run into snags of late.

Senate Bill 830 is sponsored by high-ranking Republican Dolores Gresham of Somerville. But the retired Marine Corps officer who chairs the Senate Education Committee has deferred action on the bill several times in recent days after members of the chamber’s Finance, Ways & Means Committee, including several of her GOP caucus cohorts, have voiced concerns about the bill.

Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson, who sits on the Finance Committee, told TNReport Tuesday that he is uncomfortable with the limited purview of the charter authorizer, which would only extend to urban counties that have struggling, so-called “priority” schools.

“We had testimony that establishing a panel was a best practice, but also making it state-wide was a best practice so I think if we’re going to be consistent…we ought to have one review process for it,” the Hixon Republican said.

Gresham is set to bring the measure up again Wednesday after a day’s worth of last minute tinkering. But it is unclear if she’ll be able to swing enough votes in her favor.

Meanwhile, another of Sen. Gresham’s charter-school bills passed the House without one of the amendments she fought to include in her version. The added language to Senate Bill 205 would allow charter schools to contract with for-profit companies to manage the schools, an option currently only open to non-profit organizations.

On the House floor Tuesday, Knoxville Republican Harry Brooks introduced his version of the legislation as originally drafted which would only serve to clean up or clarify existing charter-related rules. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley asked Brooks explicitly if the legislation dealt with for-profit operators and Brooks told him it did not.

The Senate is set to vote on Greshams bill, as amended, in coming days and, if passed, the two chambers would still have to hash out any differences, including those related to for-profit management.

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