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Education NewsTracker

Dems Say GOP Rejecting Local Gov’t Control In Charter Moves

Democrats on Capitol Hill Tuesday accused Republicans of abandoning their mantra of local government control in their handling of a proposed charter school for Nashville.

Fired up over the Haslam administration’s fining Metro schools because its school board rejected the charter school application, Democrats said GOP leaders had adopted for the “big government” mindset they purport to detest. Still, Democrats say they, too, are no stranger to falling back on government oversight.

“I’m not saying there’s not some times when the federal government should step in or the state government should not step in and overrule local government, but they’re doing it on a pretty consistent level up here now when one time that was something they were really opposed to,” said House Democratic Caucus Leader Mike Turner, of Old Hickory, following a press conference with four other local Democratic legislators and candidates.

The state Department of Education last week slapped Metro Nashville Public Schools with what amounts to a $3.4 million fine for ignoring the state Board of Education’s order to approve a charter school application from Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies. The Metro schools board voted twice against the state board’s order to OK the proposal, saying that the school planned for the affluent West End neighborhood lacked a diversity plan.

Members of the minority party — which has little pull on Capitol Hill — said they’d like to see the state continue to meet and work with the school district in hopes of dodging the fine. Joining the press conference were Rep. Sherry Jones, Rep. Brenda Gilmore, Rep. Mike Stewart and Phillip North, a Democratic candidate for state Senate.

Stewart, of Nashville, said he takes issue with how the administration has carried out the charter school law. He said the Legislature never meant to give the state the power to ultimately approve charter schools against a local school district’s will.

But the section in law giving the state such authority predates Haslam and was passed in 2002 when Democrats still had control of the House of Representatives.

According to the Tennessee Charter School Act:

“If the state board finds that the local board’s decision was contrary to the best interests of the pupils, school district, or community, the state board shall remand such decision to the local board of education with written instructions for approval of the charter. The decision of the state board shall be final and not subject to appeal. The (local school district), however, shall be the chartering authority.”

Turner asserts that the Metro school board followed the state law to a “t,” and says the charter school operators never produced a satisfactory diversity plan, as outlined by the state Board of Education.

The state Board seems to disagree. The board sent out a statement backing up the Haslam administration’s decision after news broke of the state fine.

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Press Releases

Davidson Co. Dems Criticize Haslam Decision to Fine MNPS

Press release from the Tennessee House Democrat Caucus; September 25, 2012: 

NASHVILLE – State Democratic leaders criticized Gov. Bill Haslam for taking $3.4 million in taxpayer money away from Metro Nashville schools over the school board’s refusal to approve Great Hearts Academies.

Members of the Davidson County legislative delegation, along with District 20 state Senate candidate Phillip North, spoke to reporters about the issue at a press conference Tuesday.

“We disagree with Gov. Haslam’s administration on taking Davidson County taxpayers’ dollars and sending them to other school districts when that money is needed right here,” said State Rep. Brenda Gilmore, chairwoman of the Davidson County delegation.

North said that local school boards should have the right to evaluate a charter school’s application on its merits, and he said that that’s what happened in the case of Great Hearts.

“The merits of the application of a charter school company should be left to the local, elected school board,” North said. “I continue to have confidence in our elected school board, teachers and school administrators.”

Others said it might be time to clarify state law on charter schools. The law currently gives charter schools the right to appeal a school board’s decision, but does not explicitly give the state sole authority to approve a charter school’s application.

“If that’s what legislators had intended, we would have set up an independent authorizer,” Rep. Mike Stewart said.

“We have Democrats on both sides of the charter school issue,” Caucus Chairman Rep. Mike Turner said. “But we all agree that it’s wrong to penalize Metro when they’ve made a judicious decision.”