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General Assembly Wraps Up, Major Ed Items Left Undone

GOP supermajority leaders vow to take up vouchers, charter-school matters again next year

The GOP-run Tennessee Legislature called it a year Friday, closing up shop on the earliest date in over two decades.

And in typical fashion, the ebbing hours of the session were a whirl of harried debate and last-minute spatting between the House and Senate.

One of the big items on the Tennessee General Assembly’s education agenda for the year was unceremoniously tossed aside in the waning hours of the session with signs that the proposal failed as a result of a legislative game of chicken between chambers.

The so-called “charter authorizer” bill aimed to give the state the power to overrule local school districts if they decided to reject an applications for new charter schools in their area.

Pushed for heavily by charter school supporters, the bill initially called for the creation of an independent, state-appointed panel to hear such appeals. But after facing some resistance in Senate committees, it was watered down significantly, moving the authorizing power under the State Board of Education.

House Bill 702, sponsored by Memphis Republican Mark White, had strong support in the lower chamber throughout the committee process and was a priority item for House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville.

But the Senate version, carried by Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, always appeared to be a tougher sell in the upper chamber and there were whispers, Friday, that Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville was delaying action on the bill as a way to press the House to pass one of his legislative priorities, a plan for judicial redistricting in the state.

That bill, SB780, failed spectacularly in the House Friday afternoon by a vote of 66-28 and Gresham subsequently took her bill off notice.

Questioned by reporters following the session if the failure of the two bills was related, Ramsey replied obliquely, “Somewhat, that’s about it. It wasn’t retaliation. I thought the judicial redistricting bill should pass and it didn’t, so that’s where we are.”

The failed charter authorizer bill is one of a few big-ticket pieces of education legislation that didn’t make it out of the Assembly this year. Earlier in the session, Gov. Bill Haslam abandoned a plan to give public school children vouchers to pay tuition at private schools after fellow Republicans in the Legislature insisted on trying to broaden the program beyond the governor’s liking.

At a post-session press event, Haslam mentioned both proposals saying “The two things I was, personally, most disappointed in, would be the voucher bill and the charter authorizer.”

“I do think it’s important, particularly the charter authorizer” Haslam continued. “A lot of the great charter operators we’re trying to attract to Tennessee—they’re not going to come invest all the time unless they know that they have a realistic chance of getting approved and so that’s been, I think, a key motivation for me in having the charter authorizer passed.”

The governor suggested he’d like to see both issues taken up again when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2014.

Mark Engler contributed to this story.

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