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TN’s Charter School Act Constitutional: AG Cooper

State Attorney General Robert Cooper this week issued an opinion declaring that Tennessee’s charter school law is consistent with the state constitution.

The opinion was delivered in response to requests made by House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and state Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, asking that the state’s top lawyer weigh in on whether the Tennessee Public Charter Schools Act of 2002 imposes unconstitutional financial burdens on local school districts.

Cooper’s response, delivered Sept. 9, said the law does not unduly encumber local school boards.

“On its face, the Charter Schools Act does not directly or expressly require the expenditure of extra funds beyond what an LEA is already spending on education. Rather, it simply requires that all education funds follow the student for whom they were appropriated,” Cooper’s opinion, issued Sept. 9, stated.

“Furthermore, even if the Charter Schools Act were to increase spending by local school districts, the State share of these shared expenditures would remain significant and thus (the Tennessee Constitution) would not be violated,” the opinion continued.

Cooper’s views sought to addresses questions raised in a memo from an attorney hired by Metro Nashville Public Schools suggesting the state’s system for approving and funding charter school may be constitutionally suspect on the grounds that it might “impose increased costs on local governments with no offsetting subsidy from the state.”

The Metro Nashville school board has been mulling ways to challenge or head off a legislative proposal to grant the state power to override local districts that deny charter schools permission to operate.  The so-called “charter authorizer” bill, which died on the final day of the 2013 session, is expected to see a return next year in some form.

Article II, Section 24 of the Tennessee Constitution, which is the portion of the state’s governing document cited by the school board’s attorney, says that no state law should be passed that mandates an increase in “expenditure requirements on cities or counties” unless the state shares in the overall cost.

“The charter school receives all of the state and local per-pupil expenses, while the [local school districts] still must cover existing fixed costs,” wrote John Borkowski, the Washington, D.C.-based attorney hired by MNPS to assess the Act.

Borkowski added, “There does not appear to be any state subsidy to share in these increased costs.”

Cooper rejected that analysis. He wrote that even if the 2002 Charter Schools Act did increase the amount of education spending for local districts, the state shares the financial weight.

“Through the BEP, the State provides the majority of funds expended on education by LEAs,”  wrote the attorney general. “Consequently, in the event there are increased financial burdens to local school districts in connection with the creation and the funding of charter schools under the Charter Schools Act, the State share of educational funding of the BEP pursuant to Tenn. Code… is clearly more than sufficient to meet the level required by Article II, Section 24, as interpreted by Tennessee courts.”

General Assembly Wraps Up, Major Ed Items Left Undone

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.

Senate Finance OKs Retooled Charter Authorizer Proposal

After weeks of postponements and concerns from both sides of the aisle, the state Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee voted Wednesday to substantially overhaul a contentious charter school bill.

The original plan laid out in Senate Bill 830, carried by Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, would have created a stand-alone, state-appointed board with the power to overrule local school systems who denied applications to open new charter schools. But after members of the Finance Committee raised questions about the roughly $240,000 price tag for the new board and the increased bureaucracy it would create, Gresham, with the help of committee member and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, introduced an amendment that would move the charter authorizer function under the state Board of Education.

The changes to the measure proved to be enough to sway all but one of the GOP committee members.

But Democrats, along with Maryville Republican Doug Overbey still didn’t lend their support. Outstanding concerns included the bill’s limited focus on counties that have struggling, “priority schools,” and the lack of any rules to make sure that new charter schools would be located in underserved neighborhoods and not more distant, well off communities.

While Gresham ultimately managed to prevail and push the changes through, she was less than cheerful, heatedly telling reporters after the vote that the concerns raised by opponents during the hour-plus of discussion on the bill were outmoded.

“I think what you heard a lot of was people talking about a system of education that is an old way of looking at things. We have to be, at all times, focused on children… We’re not here to preserve a system that serves adults,” Gresham said. She added that, while not perfect, the amended legislation is “a way to get there, it’s another tool to get there and we are going to get there…as long as you focus on children and not yourself.”

The House was scheduled to vote on their version of the bill earlier in the day, Wednesday, but they put it off, presumably to see how the Senate committee acted. Given the lack of opposition the legislation has seen so far in the lower chamber and the blessing of high ranking Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, it appears likely that the GOP supermajority probably has the votes to bat the bill home.

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.

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

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.

Haslam Receptive to For-Profit Charter Operators in Tennessee

Gov. Bill Haslam is open to the idea of letting for-profit companies manage public charter schools in Tennessee.

Currently, charter schools in the state can only contract with non-profit school operators, but a bill working its way through the Tennessee Legislature would remove that restriction.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Haslam said he thinks “the idea has some merit.”

“There are some really good for-profit charter operators,” said the Republican governor. “And if they can come in and do that in an effective way for school systems, they should be considered.”

According to a report from Nashville Public Radio, the legislation is the result of lobbying by National Heritage Academies, a for-profit organization based in Michigan that operates 74 charter schools in nine states.

The proposal, carried in the Senate by Chattanooga Republican Todd Gardenhire, appeared doomed earlier in the session after it failed two separate votes in the upper chamber’s Education Committee. But after tacking on the same language as an amendment to a much larger, more innocuous bill, Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, managed to shepherd it through to the Senate floor.

The House version of the bill, sponsored by Knoxville Republican Harry Brooks, is set to go before the Finance, Ways & Means Committee Wednesday.

TNDP: State Charter Authorizer Bill ‘Rushed Through Committee’ by GOP

Press release from the Tennessee Democratic Party; April 3, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Republicans who control Nashville rushed through committee a measure to create a state charter school authorizer — a centralized government body that strips school decisions away from local boards.

Charter schools approved by the state charger authorizer would have to be funded by local taxpayers whether there was money available or not. To address the issue of the unfunded mandate, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley) introduced a measure that would have set in place financial guardrails to protect local taxpayers from a tax increase.

“This bill, without guardrails, is the mother of all unfunded mandates. It will give a state bureaucracy the power to create an unlimited number of charter schools, which will result in massive tax increases or local governments,” said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh. “I offered a common-sense amendment to help protect taxpayers, but the special interests behind this bill override common-sense.”

HB 702, the state charter authorizer sponsored by Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis) will create a new state bureaucracy to oversee appeals of charter schools administrators denied by local school boards. In the third substantive change to the bill since it was introduced, the new language limits the panel’s authority to school districts which are designated “priority” districts.

During the committee hearing, Leader Fitzhugh noted this would be duplicative and a waste of taxpayer funds. The Achievement School District already has the authority to authorize charters in districts who perform in the bottom 5 percent of the state.

“This is a bad bill that keeps getting worse as the sponsors wheel and deal behind the scenes to pass something — anything — regardless of whether it will improve the performance of students in our district,” said Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville). “I am deeply disappointed that Commissioner Kevin Huffman worked behind the scenes to kill the amendment that would have protected taxpayers in Davidson County and across Tennessee.

“The fact that he refused to even meet with local school board members in Nashville shows his level of contempt for Davidson County taxpayers and elected officials,” Stewart said.

The charter authorizer bill passed out of the House Finance Ways & Means subcommittee on a voice vote and will move on to the full committee next week.

Haslam’s School Voucher Task Force ‘Outlines Various Options’

Press Release from the Office of Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, November 29, 2012:

Governor Receives Report from Task Force on Opportunity Scholarships

NASHVILLE – Gov. Bill Haslam today received a report from the Task Force on Opportunity Scholarships, outlining recommendations for a potential program to expand educational options and improve achievement for low-income students in Tennessee.

The report comes a year after Haslam appointed the nine-person Task Force—made up of state education leaders, legislators and representatives from public and private schools—to consider a program to offer publicly funded scholarships for low-income students to offset tuition costs at participating schools in Tennessee.

The Task Force was not meant to evaluate the merits or disadvantages of a scholarship program. Instead, members spent months studying the public and private education landscape in Tennessee, as well as opportunity scholarship programs in other states, to determine potential design elements that would best fit within the broader context of the education reform work taking place in Tennessee. The report outlines various options for the governor’s consideration.

“I want to thank the members of the Task Force for the time and effort they spent researching and deliberating what an opportunity scholarship program could look like in Tennessee,” Haslam said. “I look forward to reviewing the Task Force’s recommendations ahead of the upcoming legislative session.”

Haslam’s Task Force, chaired by Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, represented a variety of perspectives on opportunity scholarships and did not reach full agreement on each design element, but found many points of consensus. All Task Force members agreed that the focus of an opportunity scholarship program should be designed to increase options for low-income students.

“I appreciate the thoughtful contributions of each of the members of the Task Force,” Huffman said. “Their serious consideration of this project helped ensure we were able to offer recommendations for the governor, motivated by our shared goal to improve educational outcomes for all students in Tennessee.”

The complete report submitted to Haslam for consideration can also be accessed online at: http://www.tn.gov/education/news/opportunityscholarshipreport.pdf.

Members of the Task Force on Opportunity Scholarships included:

  • Kevin Huffman, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Education, chair
  • Chris Barbic, superintendent, Achievement School District
  • Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville), House Speaker Beth Harwell’s (R-Nashville) designee
  • Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s (R-Blountville) designee
  • Indya Kincannon, Coalition of Large School Systems designee; vice chair, Knox County Board of Education
  • Mary McDonald, independent school community designee; former superintendent, Memphis Catholic Dioceses
  • Gary Nixon, executive director, State Board of Education
  • Jamie Woodson, president and CEO, State Collaborative on Reforming Education
  • Ron Zimmer, associate professor of public policy and education, Vanderbilt University

Bypassing Locals on Charters Looking More Likely: Harwell

If the Tennessee legislature approves a statewide authorizer for charter schools, House Speaker Beth Harwell said that charter students’ test scores — and the per-student money to educate those children — would flow away from local school districts into the state system.

“Those children’s test scores would come out from the local school system and be counted in the state system — not the local,” Harwell told TNReport in an interview at her office Thursday. “In addition, the money would (follow the students) as well.”

As it stands now, charter school students’ scores are counted with the government-run district schools. And although public money follows the student even if he attends a charter school, it is common for the government-run public school to take a slice of that money for administrative overhead.

A statewide authorizer for charter schools may change that scenario, based on Harwell’s comments.

Momentum appears to be building for the legislature to create such an authorizer, which would serve as a place where the non-profit charters could go to get approval to start teaching.

Triggering this momentum was the Metro Nashville schools’ decision last month to ignore state orders to usher the charter school Great Hearts Academies into the district. The board of the Metro Nashville Public Schools contends that the first of five proposed schools, run by a Phoenix-based charter school operator, would lack diversity and pander to an affluent Nashville neighborhood.

Officials for Great Hearts have told TNReport that, despite the denials, they are in Nashville for the long haul and are still hoping they can open five schools in the metro area.

Harwell indicated that there may be a scenario in which local school boards retain control over authorizing charter schools.

“We want to work with our local school boards,” Harwell said. “We are willing to do that and want to do that, but not at the detriment of our children.”

Trent Seibert can be reached trent@TNReport.com, at Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

Great Hearts Gearing Up for Legislative Fight

Great Hearts Academies, whose application for a charter school was denied by the Metro Nashville Public Schools board, is in Nashville for the long haul, a spokesman told TNReport this week.

And lobbyists for the Arizona-based nonprofit will by no means be playing hookey from the Tennessee Legislature during the 2013 legislative session.

“The Nashville board’s disregard of the truth and repeated defiance of state law illustrates why an impartial Tennessee charter school authority is needed,” Great Hearts attorney Ross Booher said. “Since the governor and legislature gave all children the freedom to attend public charter schools, the board apparently now fears that many more parents and children will choose public schools that the board does not completely control.”

Booher: “If Tennessee puts in place an impartial state charter authority, Great Hearts would re-apply to that authority.”

The idea of creating a statewide authority that would give the OK to charter schools likely to become the next hot-button education reform issue at the Capitol.

Great Hearts is still hoping to ultimately open five schools in the Metro Nashville area, Booher said.

Booher also weighed in on the Metro school board’s decision to boot the Great Hearts charter application.

“The board has a major conflict of interest. It is desperately trying to stem the tide of public charter schools that it sees as its direct competition when it should be embracing innovation and partnerships that provide children with additional school options,” Booher said. “Allowing parents to freely choose the public school that is best for their individual child is the ultimate in local control.”

The company, headquartered in Phoenix, was mired in controversy during its long-running battle with the Nashville school board as it tried to open a West Nashville charter school.

Critics said that the Great Hearts school would lack diversity and would not provide adequate transportation for students.

“Any suggestion of that is just completely baseless,” Booher said. “It’s not borne out by the facts at all. When you look at the plan that Great Hearts had for Nashville … it exceeded what Metro does for its own students at schools of choice.

Trent Seibert can be reached at Trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.