published Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

Education chief chides state lawmakers

by Kelli Gauthier
Audio clip

Rep. Tommie Brown

Tennessee legislators’ stalling on a bill to open up public charter school enrollment makes no sense to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The state’s charter school law — which allows only low-performing students or those who attend low-performing schools to attend charters — could prevent Tennessee from receiving more than $100 million in federal stimulus money meant to encourage educational innovation, Mr. Duncan said Monday.

“What I hear coming through loud and clear in Tennessee is children’s parents desperately seeking those options and it’s being denied. And it doesn’t make sense to me,” he said in a conference call with reporters.

In addition to House Bill 2146, which would have allowed low-income Tennessee students to attend charter schools, a similar bill was introduced by Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson. That bill, which would have opened charter enrollment to all students and lifted a statewide cap on the number of schools that could be formed, was tabled earlier this year.

Mr. Duncan and President Barack Obama have said repeatedly they support the creation of effective charter schools. They also say they like the caps lifted in the 26 states that limit the number of charters that can be formed, Tennessee included.


After passing through the state Senate, HB 2146 failed to make it through the House Education Committee last month. The bill would open Tennessee’s charter schools to poorer children who qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunches in systems with at least 12,000 students, which includes Hamilton County

“Some of these places, it’s easier to get into an Ivy League university than to get into an elementary charter school,” Mr. Duncan said. “We don’t put a cap each year on the number of students who can graduate, or take AP classes, so if something’s working ... why would you put an artificial cap on that?”

State Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, has been vocal about her opposition to charter schools, saying she has not seen research to show that charter schools are effective at turning around failing school districts or helping struggling students.

“If (the federal government) wants to dump $300 million in Tennessee, then fine. You know when you can’t win,” she said. “But the citizens of Hamilton County will rue the day when they let this happen.”

Mr. Duncan said he had not yet decided how heavily a state’s embrace of charter schools would weigh in whether it received the large chunk of stimulus money.

Although the legislation was stalled last month in the House Education Committee, Rep. Brown called its passing “a done deal.” She declined to say whether or not she would support the bill.

about Kelli Gauthier...

Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...

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