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TN charter authorizer bill back on track

8:53 AM, Apr 18, 2013   |    comments
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By Joey Garrison, The Tennessean

An overhauled version of a controversial bill that would allow the state to approve charter schools in five counties, including Davidson, cleared a Senate committee Wednesday, one day after it became clear it wasn't going anywhere in its previous form.

It now appears the legislation is back on track as the 108th Tennessee General Assembly concludes its business.

Chief among changes is scratching what previously was conceived as a new state-appointed panel that could approve charter applications first denied by local boards. The amended version would give the State Board of Education this authority, eliminating the need for a new panel and reducing its $239,000 price tag.

The Senate Budget Finance, Ways and Means Committee voted 7-3 to advance the amended bill, moving it to the Senate floor. The House will consider a companion bill before the General Assembly adjourns.

Charter rejected

The bill, supported by Mayor Karl Dean and House Speaker Beth Harwell, arrived this session following the Metro Nashville school board's repeated rejection last summer of Great Hearts Academies' charter application, which resulted in the state imposing a $3.4 million fine on Metro.

As amended, the bill would prevent a future Great Hearts situation in Nashville - one in which the local school board ignores the wishes of the state when it comes to approving publicly financed, privately operated charters.

After reviewing charter schools on appeal, the State Board of Education is able only to remand applications to local boards under current law. The amended bill effectively would make the state board's decision binding.

The bill is set up so the panel could only consider charter applications denied by local school boards in counties with "priority schools," a label designated to the bottom 5 percent in performance statewide. That means it would affect only the state's largest counties, Davidson, Shelby, Knox and Hamilton, as well as Hardeman.

Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, noted Wednesday that Davidson County has only six priority schools, yet the state board could approve charters anywhere in the county.

Henry said low-income students living near Jefferson Street would have a "dickens of a time" getting to a charter school near his home in Belle Meade.

Stephen Smith, a state assistant commissioner of education, said all students deserve greater choice, not just those in the lowest-performing schools.

Great Hearts had proposed a charter in affluent West Nashville. The school was met with sharp criticism because of diversity and transportation concerns.

Opponents of the charter authorizer bill include the Metro school board, Metro Council and Democrats. They contend the proposal circumvents local control and poses a financial burden on school districts.

But Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, said the measure is aimed chiefly at attracting high-quality charters.

The seven senators who voted to advance the bill Wednesday were all Republicans. Those voting against it were Sens. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, and Doug Overbey, R-Maryville.

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