published Thursday, June 18th, 2009

House passes charter schools legislation

NASHVILLE — Legislation expanding the number of children eligible to attend charter schools passed the House today on a 79-15 vote despite an uproar caused when one of the sponsors said in a news release that “public schools are the last vestige of slavery.”

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville urged colleagues to ignore the news release from Rep. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, a conservative Republican.

“We’ve worked too hard on this bill,” said Rep. Turner, who had earlier opposed the measure until a compromise was struck. “Let’s put everything aside and vote this bill out.”

Seantors are expected to take the measure up this afternoon as lawmakers scramble to finish their annual legislative session.

The charter schools bill had previously been bottled up in the House Education Committee. But a compromise began to come together after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan threatened to punish Tennessee for what he considered the state’s restrictive charter schools laws.

He said he would deny schools $100 million in federal stimulus money meant to encourage educational innovation.

As passed by the House, poorer students eligible for the free-and-reduced lunch program would be eligible to attend a charter school in systems with average daily membership of at least 14,000 students where at least three schools are on a high-priority list of failing schools.

The description includes six school systems including Hamilton County schools. Two charter schools are now licensed to begin operating in the county this year.

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