Nineteen months after Metro's refusal to approve a charter school proposal for West Nashville ignited a bitter confrontation with state officials, a bill giving the state final say over authorization in Davidson County and elsewhere is on track to become law.
Despite objections raised over circumventing local control, the Tennessee Senate voted 20-13 on Thursday to approve Senate Bill 0830, legislation that House Speaker Beth Harwell and Mayor Karl Dean pushed after the Metro school board in 2012 defied a state order to approve Phoenix-based Great Hearts Academies' charter proposal.
The bill, which cleared the House last year, lets the Tennessee State Board of Education overturn local school board decisions to deny new publicly-financed, privately-led charters in counties that have the state's lowest-performing schools.
That includes Tennessee's four largest counties — Davidson, Shelby, Knox and Hamilton — as well as Hardeman. Charters would still have to apply locally before appealing at the state level.
Senate sponsor Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, said the overhaul is meant to "enhance" the state's charter authorization process and stressed that local school districts would be part of the process until the "very end." She also sought to quash fears that the state would place financial burdens on local school districts by adding new schools.
"It is not a charter mandate," Gresham said. "The state board is not out to approve some sort of wild spending spree."
But Sen. Jim, Kyle, D-Memphis questioned why the proposal should only target five of the state's 95 counties while making the case that it strips its school boards of local governance. Memphis along with Nashville could be most affected.
"This bill is just totally contrary to the concept of local control," Kyle said. "This is as much of a statement as it is a substantive change to the law to help education."
Gov. Bill Haslam's spokesman, Dave Smith, said the governor supports the the bill as amended and that he anticipates he'll sign it.
Dean, an early supporter of the bill, applauded the Senate's vote through a spokeswoman. "It creates a more enforceable appeal process, which will ultimately give parents more high-quality educational choices for their children," Dean spokeswoman Bonna Johnson said.
Six of the Senate's seven Democrats voted against the bill, joining seven Republicans.
Procedurally, the bill must first go back to the House where it would need to update changes from last year's version, including its effective date, now July of this year. Under the proposal, local boards would have the option to contract with charters schools approved by the state.
The Metro school board has approved 23 charter schools, but it repeatedly rejected the application of Great Hearts in 2012 over concerns about its commitment to student diversity. The state board had sent to Great Hearts application back to Metro for approval but there is no statute that obligated it to comply.
Instead, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman withheld $3.4 million from Metro in education funding after the board in September 2012 denied Great Hearts' entry one last time.
Since then, the Metro school board has tried to build an argument than the influx of charter schools in Davidson County has created a financial toll on its budget. An attorney for Metro Nashville Public Schools in August opined that schools approved by the state could be subject to legal challenges because it would "impose increased costs on local governments with no offsetting subsidy from the state."
Will Pinkston, one of the Metro board's biggest charter critics, echoed that possibility Thursday: "At a time when the state is already underfunding its share of public education, this legislation would basically confiscate Davidson County taxpayer dollars in order to create new state-run schools with very little accountability."
Leaders of the Tennessee Charter School Center, conversely, called the proposal a "natural step" in the growth of the state's charter program: "Tennessee is on track to join the nearly two-thirds of all states with charters that have established multiple chartering authorities," the group said in a statement.
Reach Joey Garrison at 615-259-8236 or on Twitter @joeygarrison.