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Education NewsTracker

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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Education Featured News

House Approves Collective Bargaining Limitations

The Tennessee House and Senate have approved competing plans overhauling the state’s collective bargaining laws.

But both chambers’ leaders believe they’ll ultimately end up banning unions from negotiating teachers’ labor contracts once everything is said and done.

“I think the vote today indicated that we can get it passed if it’s reasonably drawn and reasonably written. I think we have the opportunity to pass it here,” House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, told reporters after she presided over a grueling four-hour debate on her chamber’s floor.

On a 59-39 vote, majority Republicans moved to scale back teachers’ collective bargaining powers.

Opponents included all the House Democrats, one independent and five Republicans. They pitched more than two dozen alternatives to weaken or derail the bill, but only a few tinkering with technicalities passed — the rest were either tabled or later withdrawn.

One opponent to SB113/HB13o, Democratic Rep. Mike McDonald of Portland, wheeled out an easel and poster boards to help illustrate what he thinks collective bargaining has accomplished to aide teachers beyond helping them get better contracts. The system has allowed them to pressure school boards into purchasing additional “instructional supplies” and other educational materials for their classrooms, he said.

A band of Republicans railed against the bill, too. The GOP caucus members who voted against SB113/HB130 included Reps. Scotty Campbell of Mountain City, Mike Harrison of Rogersville, Dennis “Coach Roach of Rutledge, Dale Ford of Jonesborough and Bob Ramsey of Maryville.

Independent Kent Williams also voted against the anti-collective bargaining legislation. The former state House speaker from Elizabethton hinted during the floor debate that the bill was no more than “political payback” because the Tennessee Education Association gives dramatically more money in campaign contributions to the Democratic Party than they do the GOP.

Republicans maintained that their efforts were solely about improving education in Tennessee, and that ultimately everyone — teachers, students and taxpayers — would benefit from loosening the union’s grip on policy and personnel discussions.

GOP lawmakers said they believe the TEA has become a force of obstructionism in education reform discussions over the years, and that the process of collective bargaining between a school board and a single employee organization to the exclusion of all others thwarts input and exchange of new ideas.

“We have allowed a professional organization to hijack education in our state for their own agenda,” said Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican.

Far from being an “attack on teachers,” as opponents of the legislation have painted GOP efforts for months this session, SB113/HB130 represents “the most empowering legislation I’ve seen in a long time for teachers,”said Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol.

Eliminating collective bargaining and allowing school boards to consider other viewpoints and voices when drafting new contracts for education professionals “will help (teachers) succeed,” said Lundberg.

Under the House proposal, teachers unions would no longer be able to negotiate salaries, merit pay, use of grant funding, teacher evaluations, personnel decisions along with policies relating to special education programs like virtual school districts.

Unions would, however, still be able to hammer out issues like benefits and staffing decisions.

Powerful Senate Republicans though have said all along they will accept nothing less than a complete repeal of the 1978 Education Professionals Negotiations Act, which mandates that school districts negotiate with a recognized teachers union.

Not only would the Senate prefer no mandate to collective bargaining, but they’d rather teachers and unions “collaborate” with school districts on issues they want to debate on — but ultimately leave those policy decisions entirely up to the school board.

The rest, they say, they’re happy to compromise on.

So what happens now?

The two chambers will likely play a short game of legislative ping-pong where the Senate rejects the House version of the collective bargaining overhaul then the House turns down the Senate version.

Then speakers from both chambers will name three lawmakers to represent the chamber in a conference committee, essentially a compromise group meant to hash out the differences between the two bills.

Harwell said she’d consider naming Education Chairman Richard Montgomery of Sevierville, bill sponsor Debra Maggart of Mt. Juliet and Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville to the committee. Although she will make the committee assignments later in the week, it’s unclear whether she’ll swap any of those members for a Democrat as conference committees traditionally included a member of the minority party.